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COMMENT: The long journey to ZimFact

Fifteen months ago Zimbabwe’s first national fact-checking service was a five-page concept document.  

What followed was months of discussion in boardrooms and newsrooms, in gardens and on the street. How would we structure it? What content would we offer? What kind of collaboration with other media organisations would we pursue?

On 16 March 2018 we officially launched ZimFact with three full-time staff members, backed by a dozen part-time correspondents trained by Africa Check earlier this year.

Fact-checking in a politics-obsessed society

In a world where trust in the media is declining, ZimFact aims to help minimise the dissemination of false and misleading information.

This is particularly critical in a country where the media has become a fierce political battleground and citizens have been obsessed with politics, elections and governance issues for nearly 20 years.

Zimbabwe has seen 10 major nationwide votes in the last two decades, including two referendums on national constitutions.

ZimFact covers the inevitable political issues, but also pays attention to health, education, law and human rights, gender issues, child welfare, economics, business and finance, agriculture and the media.

A welcome development

So far, it has been a refreshingly good experience – for three main reasons.

First, both of our funding partners have respected, in word and deed, the independence of the editorial team. Traditionally prickly state authorities have also welcomed ZimFact as a development.

Second, editors in the local mainstream media are keen on bringing fact-checking skills into newsrooms and working with us on training and general media literacy in this area.

Third, public feedback has generally been positive, and is growing. (Although it has often been accompanied by suggestions that we investigate scandals and colourful rumours about the private lives of politicians!)

The primacy of facts

We verify what we can within the bounds of fact-checking. Our reports have included claims about the basic salaries of junior doctors and the pension due to former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.

We have also tackled hot-button topics, such a claim by President Emmerson Mnangagwa significantly overstating new foreign direct investment in Zimbabwe. ZimFact has also built a collection of factsheets on key social, economic and political issues, such as land ownership, health, education, mining, elections and the country’s national debt.

Our collective experience is that in Zimbabwe’s hyper-partisan political environment, some readers are uncomfortable with facts and information that interfere with their political views, prejudices and attitudes.

The highly sensitive political environment demands that we are judicious in our editorial line. This includes emphasising the primacy of facts as the basis of good professional journalism and that ZimFact’s focus is not on naming and shaming.

Better journalism, better public discussion

Launched as the country heads towards the 2018 general election, ZimFact is an important addition to Zimbabwe’s information landscape. It seeks to keep politicians, the media, public officials as well as corporations and their executives honest.

It is a lofty agenda and an onerous task. Not least because good fact-checking depends on access to information, which remains a struggle in Zimbabwe – despite recent improvements in the quality of data and the general media environment.

The last few months have demonstrated the need for fact-checking. In the words of ZimFact researcher Lifaqane Nare: “Our media today largely deals with opinion and passes it off as fact without calling out politicians and corporates to back it up.”

It has been a demanding task so far, but with optimism we look forward to what ZimFact can contribute to the overall quality of journalism and public discourse in Zimbabwe.


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