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COMMENT: What fact-checking in ‘Naija’ has been like, one year on

Nothing quite prepares you for the task of fact-checking in a country like Nigeria. Absolutely nothing!

How do you go from researching claims about Nigeria’s butterfly diversity, the existence (or not) of fire trucks in Kogi State to teenage pregnancy in Northern Nigeria?

When I joined Africa Check as its first full-time fact-checker in the country exactly a year ago, the organisation was already four years old.

Raising the level of public debate on the continent through fact-checking hasn’t been easy. I didn’t imagine it would be in Nigeria either, especially as fake news, falsehoods and “beer-parlour facts” pervade information channels.

Despite the challenges, lessons and frustrations of the past 12 months, I can celebrate several successes and evidence of impact today.

What has Africa Check’s impact been in Nigeria?

 David Ajikobi being interviewed by students who attended a symposium held at the University of Lagos in July 2017. David Ajikobi being interviewed by students who attended a symposium held at the University of Lagos in July 2017." />

“The work Africa Check is now doing in Nigeria reinforces the need to have more fact-checking initiatives and for more journalists to make this an everyday part of their job to better inform Nigerians,” shared the head of special publications at
The Nation Newspapers, Lekan Otufodunrin, recently.

He said this at the first Africa Facts meeting our organisation hosted in November in Johannesburg. Other Nigerian media heads were also in attendance, such as Dapo Olorunyomi, the publisher of the multi-award winning news website, Premium Times.

The meeting’s aim was to establish a network of fact-checking initiatives on the continent, operating according to a code of principles like that of the International Fact-Checking Network.

Apart from sparking the interest of local journalists in fact-checking over the past year, our readership in Nigeria has grown significantly. Today, Nigerians form the largest group of our 42,000 Facebook followers.

Africa Check’s endgame is to strengthen democratic processes and improve life outcomes by enabling people to take better decisions. I contributed to that with close to 30 fact-checks, factsheets and blogs.

Fact-checking on Lagos airwaves

Africa Check has also taken fact-checking to the Lagos airwaves. Starting in June, our fact-checking show airs Mondays at 8:15 am on top talk-radio station 99.3 Nigeria Info.

The show is a major achievement for me as the popularity and reach of radio is immense. Feedback has been encouraging with listeners asking for some episodes to be repeated.

Popular episodes included the claim that Nigerian federal lawmakers earn more than a US president, as well as one by The New York Times that almost all children under 5 have died in the northern parts of Nigeria due to the Boko Haram insurgency. Both claims were incorrect.

Our factsheets have also been favourites. This included one on local bribery, why doctors downed tools and how health officials were forewarned about a meningitis outbreak that killed more than a thousand people.

In addition to 99.3 Nigeria Info, Africa Check has also been featured regularly on the media-focused talk show of Radio One 103.5 FM as well as TV stations.

The most exciting part of my work

 Nigeria editor David Ajikobi address attendees at an event hosted by the US embassy in Lagos to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2017. Nigeria editor David Ajikobi address attendees at an event hosted by the US embassy in Lagos to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2017." />

Talking about the impact fact-checking have on the choices people make daily also formed a big part of my work over the last year.

Especially memorable was the recognition Africa Check received at an event
hosted by the US embassy in Lagos to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on 3 May. A week later, the US mission in Abuja held a workshop where I instructed journalists, students and journalism lecturers in the basics of fact-checking.

In the past year, I have found speaking to students and future journalists about fact-checking the most exciting. These included events at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, the mass communication department of the University of Lagos and that of Elizade University in Ondo State.

With Africa Check recently introducing a student category to the African Fact-Checking awards, I’m keen to see more Nigerian students submitting entries.

Dealing with the big hurdles...

Verified information and solid data is the silver bullet for setting the record straight. Sparse and outdated data about Nigeria make the rigour required by fact-checking more painstaking and time-consuming.

Even basic data is disputed. Nigeria’s last population count took place in 2006 and was fraught with political issues, causing its accuracy to be in doubt.

Local data are often poorly collected or irregularly updated. A case in point is the fact-check we did of a claim by celebrated girls' rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai that Nigeria has the world’s most out-of-school girls.

We concluded that the claim was unproven since it was based on 2010 enrollment statistics by Nigeria’s education ministry which has since been downwardly revised by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.

The underlying tragedy is that to date, Nigeria is yet to undertake a comprehensive count of how many children are not in school. Without this, meaningful interventions are difficult.

Amid these challenges, a few agencies like the National Bureau of Statistics, led by Yemi Kale, have been a fact-checker’s lifeline.  

To 2018 and beyond

On the back of a new grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, our Nigerian office will grow to three. Aside from verifying claims by candidates up for election in early 2019, we will also focus on sketchy claims around health and development.  

We’ll further experiment with new platforms through which readers can access our fact-checks. In the works are Pidgin translations and reaching readers on closed and encrypted instant messaging applications like WhatsApp.  

Doing so will allow us to quickly debunk hoaxes and misinformation, like the image of a trailer load of guns purportedly confiscated from a secessionist group. We determined that the picture was actually taken in a Californian county in 2008.

In the coming year, we also want to assist more newsrooms to weed out false claims. As American documentary filmmaker Errol Morris recently said: "Truth is as important as it ever was. But it's important to remember truth is not something that's just handed over to us. It's something that is investigated, it's pursued, it's sought after."


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