“Visiting Fact-Checker Program”

Africa Check’s Julian Rademeyer: A career of digging

The fact-checking site has become so well-known that people now ask, "Have you been Africa-Checked lately?"

By Ishan Thakore – May 17, 2015 | Print this article

Julian Rademeyer first saw the claim in a BBC news article.

Traditional healers “remain the first point of contact for physical and psychological ailments for about 80% of black South Africans according to authorities,” it said.

His Africa Check team began to research it and quickly discovered the BBC wasn’t the first outlet to publish the claim. It also had been published by the South African Medical Journal and even the World Health Organization. That gave the claim a stamp of credibility even though the number seemed high.

So Rademeyer’s team kept digging to find out if the claim was true.

*  *  *

Three years ago, few people had heard of Africa Check. It was a new fact-checking organization styled after the U.S. site PolitiFact and Full Fact, a British group.  But today, Africa Check is better known and its work is often cited by media organizations around the world.

“We’re hitting the tipping point now where we’re becoming a credible source,” says Rademeyer, Africa Check’s editor, who visited Duke in April as part of the Reporters’ Lab’s Visiting Fact-Checker Program. “It’s kind of cool because it shows that people are looking at our work.”

Africa Check has been featured in the Economist, the New York Times, and a host of South African papers that receive free syndicated material from Africa Check. Larger recognition means that organizations now turn to Africa Check to debunk claims. GroundUp, a South African community journalism project, contacted Rademeyer and his team to investigate the traditional healer “fact.”

*  *  *

Fact-checking is an ideal line of work for Rademeyer, who has been a skeptical journalist since he was a teenager.

In the 1980s, police death squads, mass protests and a civil society reckoning with the end of the apartheid rocked South Africa. For the teenage Rademeyer, investigative writers and photojournalists offered him a world out of reach to the average white South African.

Julian Rademeyer is the editor of Africa Check and the author of Killing for Profit.
Julian Rademeyer is the editor of Africa Check and the author of Killing for Profit.

“These guys were documenting this and getting incredible stories, showing a side of things that was beyond people’s comfort zones,” said Rademeyer.

While other teenagers were immersed in sports or television (his family didn’t own one until the ‘90s), Rademeyer spent his time reading. His father, a history teacher at his high school, kept a steady supply of National Geographic magazines in the house to satisfy Rademeyer’s growing fondness for good writing.

With the help of an inspirational high school English teacher (cue comparisons to Dead Poets Society), Rademeyer and his friends started an edgy newsmagazine, The Interview. Not your average school paper, it included interviews with recently freed African National Congress leaders and features on scientology, painstakingly laid out by hand on A4 paper.

After high school, he knocked on the door of a reporter he admired and asked for a job.

“I guess maybe I was persistent enough, and maybe he was just bored, but he kind of kept me around, and paid me some pathetic sum of money to pack files in his office.” He took some college classes while he worked.

Rademeyer eventually found a stringing job for Reuters and then worked his way to the Sunday Times and Media24. He carved a niche doing investigative work around corruption and organized crime.

While at Media24, Rademeyer came across a puzzling link between a smuggled rifle and a farmer. He tracked this lead all the way from game hunting permits to Thai sex workers, and then from political assassinations to the Angolan Bush War. His two-year odyssey culminated in his South African best-selling book, Killing for Profit, which exposed the complexities of the illegal rhino horn trade.

“You get one link, and another link and it just keeps going. South Africa’s history is so interesting for me and multi-layered. Every story you start digging has all these layers to it,” said Rademeyer.

*  *  *

Fact-checking requires that same kind of digging, but it often doesn’t result in the same certainty as investigative reporting.

Africa Check conclusions are often qualified and tempered with explanations. That speaks to the trouble of first obtaining and then sifting through government data, which may be inaccurate, in old formats that are hard to analyze, or not even exist. He said some agencies flout Promotion of Access to Information Act (POIA) requests, which mandate the release of government information.

“It can be incredibly frustrating because the data isn’t readily available, and quite a number [of agencies] are very obstructive when it comes time to check information,” said Rademeyer. “Anything in-depth takes everything from a couple of days to weeks” to research.

When Africa Check launched an inquiry into a claim from South Africa’s Department of Basic Education that it was building a school a week, Rademeyer’s team found serious discrepancies in scheduling. Although 11 schools were built, it took a year instead of 11 weeks.  The department refused to comment at first, and then lashed out in press releases.
Other government agencies and political parties have been more receptive. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, now responds to Africa Check queries by listing its sources. Other government officials have told Rademeyer they believe Africa Check is quite fair.

Rademeyer sees this as a sign of progress.

“Instead of ‘how dare you fact-check us,’ we’re seeing a slow movement around this. [Africa Check] will be part of the process.”

Fact-checking can be important in Africa, where rumors can have serious consequences. For example, Africa Check has debunked claims about “quack cures” of  HIV/AIDS that circulate among the relatively large number of people who have the disease.

Africa Check has also debunked fabricated massacre reports on the militant group Boko Haram.

“When there’s real evidence of Boko Haram atrocities, what do you believe? How do you know that its genuine and true? It’s a mess,” says Rademeyer.

Like its Western counterparts, South African papers are struggling with less advertising revenue, which has led to staff cuts. That means fewer reporters to cover more topics, leaving less time for detailed fact checks. Government agencies can leak false information, knowing it’s bound to undergo less scrutiny before it’s published.

“The spin doctors have become very good with exploiting reporters,” said Rademeyer.

But the politicians and their parties are realizing that fact-checking is now part of the journalistic landscape. Rademeyer recounts a conversation an Africa Check employee had with a political researcher, who now cautions his colleagues:

“Have you been Africa-Checked lately?”

*  *  *

As they dug into the claim about traditional healers. Rademeyer’s team discovered it had appeared in various World Health Organization reports, which all referred to a 1983 book by Robert Bannerman called Traditional Medicine and Healthcare Coverage.

Ultimately, the fact-checkers tracked down a copy. The book said traditional healers offer their services to the 80 percent of the world’s population that lacks permanent healthcare services.  No attribution or sources were listed.

In the 30 years since that was published, the claim was warped and repeated. Sometimes the claim said the statistic was for South Africa; other times it referred to all of Africa.

In Africa Check’s article, Rademeyer cited a 2013 South African household survey which found only 0.1% of households regularly consult healers, and most use public health facilities.

The claim was unequivocally false.


Back to top

Africa Check editor says government data is sometimes hidden or inaccurate

Julian Rademeyer, the first Visiting Fact-Checker at Duke, says government officials use a variety of tactics to evade journalists.

By Shaker Samman – April 1, 2015 | Print this article

Government officials in many African countries use a variety of tricks to make it difficult for journalists to get the data and documents they need, Julian Rademeyer, editor of Africa Check, told Duke students on Monday. Some officials often don’t answer calls from reporters or use stalling tactics. Occasionally, they even hide their records.

“Rape dockets have been shoved away into a store room to hide them from people doing docket analysis,” Rademeyer said at a lunchtime workshop for students. “Some government departments pretend we don’t exist and don’t get back to us.”

Rademeyer, who heads the first fact-checking website in sub-saharan Africa, is the first journalist to take part in the Reporters’ Lab’s Visiting Fact-Checker program, which brings journalists to Duke to give speeches and meet with editors and reporters in the United States.

Rademeyer said there is high quality public data in South Africa, but not nearly as much as in the United States. That can make it difficult to know sort out what’s true and what’s not.

“Sometimes they don’t give you accurate information,” Rademeyer said. “The best you can do in that situation is flag the data as unreliable.”

Africa Check reporters have found that the availability of data varies from country to country. For example, finding reliable employment data in Zimbabwe is even more difficult than in South Africa.

In South Africa, police are required to lower crime rates each year, creating pressure to fix the numbers. This leads to disturbing attempts at shelving important data.

Real-time data on crime in South Africa is not available because crime statistics are only released annually by police, Rademeyer said. This means that citizens don’t have access to meaningful crime data to enable them to assess risks in their neighborhoods. There have also been efforts by police and politicians to spin crime statistics to create the impression that crime levels have fallen when in fact many categories of serious and violent crime have increased dramatically in the past two years, he said.

Rademeyer will participate in “Ebola: Fact-checking myths that kill” today from 6 p.m.-7 p.m. in Sanford 03. This talk will focus on debunking false claims about the disease, and how they spread.

Back to top

Africa Check Editor to be First Visiting Fact-Checker at Duke

Julian Rademeyer will visit Duke's campus in late March.

By Bill Adair – March 3, 2015 | Print this article

Julian Rademeyer, the editor of AfricaCheck, will be the first journalist to take part in the Visiting Fact-Checker Program of the Duke Reporters’ Lab when he visits the Sanford School of Public Policy in late March.

During his week-long visit, which is sponsored by the Duke Africa Initiative, Rademeyer will speak to students and faculty at two events:

The challenges of fact-checking and collecting data in Africa — A workshop on how journalists at Africa Check deal with the challenge of lack of transparency and limited data in many African countries. Finding accurate data is often a slow, frustrating and arduous process. But the fact-checkers can play a vital role in pointing out the weaknesses, campaigning for better data and pushing back against government bureaucracies that obfuscate and obstruct. Monday, March 30, Noon-1:15 p.m., Rubenstein 149

Ebola: Fact-checking myths that kill — In Liberia, villagers claimed that Ebola was “only a rumor” and a crowd, angered at the sudden quarantine of patients, stormed a clinic to release them, shouting, “There is no Ebola”. In Nigeria, a prominent professor of ophthalmology claimed that drinking a concoction made from a plant popularly known as ewedu can help prevent and even cure Ebola. Throughout the continent, fear about Ebola has sometimes outpaced the truth. Julian Rademeyer, the editor of the fact-checking site Africa Check, will discuss how the falsehoods have spread and how fact-checkers have worked to debunk them. Wednesday, April 1, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m., Sanford 03.

Julian Rademeyer is the editor of Africa Check and the author of Killing for Profit.
Julian Rademeyer is the editor of Africa Check and the author of Killing for Profit.

Rademeyer is an award-winning journalist and the author of the best-selling book Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade. He heads AfricaCheck, which researches claims by politicians and the media in Africa and promotes fact-checking throughout the continent.

The Duke Africa Initiative brings together scholars with an interest in Africa and sponsors programs about the countries and cultures of the African continent.

Rademeyer will be the first to participate in the Visiting Fact-Checker Program of the Reporters’ Lab, a new effort to invite fact-checkers to Duke to share their experiences and meet with journalists in the United States.

Back to top