Fact-based journalism is best

Imagine if you will, if Cyril Ramaphosa, as the head of the Republic, decided to declare war on the Eastern Cape. This is as close an analogy we could get to the horror of what is presently happening in Ethiopia.

At about 2am Ethiopian time on 4 November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took to his Facebook page to make a grave announcement. 

“The Ethiopian Defense Forces, run by a command post, have been tasked with saving the country,” he said. 

He contended that the regional government of Tigray, a northern province, was guilty of “crossing a red line” and that Ethiopian troops had been ordered to take action. 

“I call on Ethiopians to remain calm, be on high alert and back the military effort.”

Several commentators described this as tantamount to a declaration of war against one of Ethiopia’s own states.

A year ago, few could have predicted this when the prime minister of Ethiopia posed for cameras in Oslo after receiving the 2019 Nobel peace prize. Hailed for bringing two decades of military hostility with neighbouring Eritrea to an end, the peace deal in 2018 sparked wild celebrations in both countries and was a rare feel-good story from the conflict-ridden region. 

Tensions between the federal and regional Tigray government have been simmering for months and since fighting broke out, the government has issued a six-month state of emergency in the northern region, characterising the military incursion as a “law enforcement” operation, designed to uphold “justice and the rule of law”. 

And Ethiopia is now the latest government to hijack the business of fact-checking, imitating the work of independent media and repurposing it for government propaganda.

This information war takes place against the backdrop of a real conflict, wrote Samuel Gebre and Claire Wilmot for The Continent, the award-winning pan-African newspaper in partnership with the  Mail & Guardian.

It is not just the government that’s using social media to claim and spread “facts” about the conflict, government critics are too.

Social media has removed a primary filter of journalists as the establishment of truth tellers. Some politicians and opinion makers have seized on this opportunity as an exercise of power.

In recent years, fact-checking has become more prevalent in journalism, as reflected in the increasing numbers of fact-checking organisations being established internationally. Although often considered as a journalistic pursuit aligned to established media outlets, fact-checking has also become the focus of work by nongovernmental organisations, charities, and non-media aligned organisations. 

Ethiopia is not the first government to recognise the political power of fact-checking claims. In November last year, the press office for the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party changed its Twitter handle to “@factcheckUK” during the debate between its party leader, Boris Johnson, and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a move that sparked widespread condemnation.  

Also in 2019, the Mexican government hijacked the Verificado Notimex, a brand used by independent fact-checking organisations designed to “debunk false news on social media as well as to fact-check dubious content published by traditional media outlets”. In the Czech Republic, a prime ministerial candidate created his own fact-checking site in 2017. Other examples abound, from Turkey’s FactCheckingTr Twitter account to India’s government-run fact-checking unit.

But none of that will ever replace independent, fact-based journalism. Just as the three branches of government remain separate, it is vital that the duties of the fourth estate are carried out by those who are trained and independent.  

Kiri Rupiah & Luke Feltham write The Ampersand newsletter for subscribers. Sign up here to get the best handpicked journalism every weekday

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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