JOHANNESBURG — Jean Mujati left Harare a day early, while things were still calm.
“The part of the city I drove through, it was quiet, it was peaceful — it even looked normal,” the journalist told Poynter. “Someone needed to do something. I’m not saying I’m in favor of the military stepping in and taking over power, but something had to give in Zimbabwe.”
On Thursday, Zimbabweans awoke uncertain about their government’s future after the military took control of the country Wednesday. The army denied the move was a coup, but it has seized the headquarters of state broadcaster ZBC and blocked off access to government buildings in the capital.
President Robert Mugabe, who has governed Zimbabwe since 1980, is reportedly under house arrest. The army took over the country in a reported power struggle, and South African state media report there will likely be a transitional government.
“The scenarios we’re looking at, I’m not too sure at this point in time if we’re still going for elections,” said Mujati, the Zimbabwe program manager for the Swedish Fojo Media Institute at Linnaeus University. “The most likely scenario is we’re going for a government of national unity and we’re bringing all the players to the table to say, ‘OK, we’re in the a crisis situation.’”
That scenario casts even more uncertainty on an already fraught media environment in Zimbabwe, where free press laws haven’t caught up with the country’s new constitution that passed in 2013, when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was prime minister. And it could present a significant roadblock for budding fact-checkers.
Mujati left Zimbabwe on Thursday morning to attend a two-day fact-checking conference hosted by Africa Check in Johannesburg. In addition to a welcome respite from political turmoil, Mujati told Poynter she’s here to get some pointers on how to build a fact-checking organization from the ground up.
If all goes well, Mujati said Fojo plans to launch Zimbabwe’s first fact-checking site by early December.
“We’re in desperate need of fact-checking in Zim — there’s lots of misinformation floating around,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of buy-in for it.”
Modeled off bigger organizations like Africa Check and PolitiFact, the site — tentatively called ZimFact — will endeavor to verify political claims in a country where falsities are common. And seeing as fact-checking is a new concept in Zimbabwe, Mujati said Fojo has had no trouble in getting the interest needed to make it successful, amassing support from places like the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the European Union.
But with outside funding comes the potential for increased scrutiny by the Zimbabwean government.
That’s according to Cris Chinaka, former Reuters bureau chief in Zimbabwe and editor-designate of ZimFact. He has been working with Fojo to get the fact-checking project off the ground and told Poynter in Johannesburg that — given the history of media suppression and the current political situation the country — it faces an uphill battle.
“I think the past week has been interesting to watch. There hasn’t been anything openly said about media, but it’s early days,” said Chinaka, who is also chairman of The Source, a financial news startup that has faced government suppression. “It presents new challenges in terms of how to manage the politics.”
When asked what the worst-case scenario for ZimFact would be, Mujati was quick to answer.
“Being shut down soon after operating,” she said. “When I say being shut down, I mean being told you can’t operate legally.”
In order to mitigate that risk, Chinaka said it’s important for the proposed fact-checking site to get accreditation. In Zimbabwe, all media organizations must legally register with the government in order to operate — an obstacle that is often a painful process. And even when outlets do reach accreditation, they’re still frequently raided and journalists are arrested.
But it’s ZimFact’s best chance at surviving.
“In terms of reducing the risks, for us it’s best to say, ‘Let’s do this first thing first,’” Chinaka said. “Once we have something with a certificate, we have something to fall back on in terms of the law.”
Mujati agreed and added that, even when media organizations are accredited, getting their hands on official data is difficult. And when data does exist, it’s often falsified or incomplete, which makes conclusive fact-checking hard to do.
Nevertheless, while fact-checking organizations in the U.S. and Europe have mostly made politics the center of their focus, ZimFact will direct its attention more to domestic issues that affect people’s everyday lives. With a team of three full-time editorial staffers, in addition to about 15 freelance correspondents, it will check claims relating to public health, state infrastructure and the economy — which has been tanking for years.
“While we focus on the politics, the real crisis is the economic one, because it’s about the ordinary people on the street — their livelihood, their day-to-day,” Mujati said.
Some examples of fact checks that ZimFact would be interested in doing include looking into what chemicals are really used to purify municipal water and to what extent asbestos, a common building material in Zimbabwe, is actually harming residents. Chinaka said they’re currently trying to develop some stories with long shelf lives in order to start off on the right foot.
And he thinks there’s a demand for them.
“I think the public is looking for an intervention,” Chinaka said. “Overall, it’d be something that the public and any other major information and media consumers would welcome, because I think that’s the impact of fake and false news and propaganda.”
Still, it’s a hard sell. Chinaka said Zimbabweans are cynical about their politicians, and in order to operate, ZimFact will have to play by the government’s rules at least to some extent. To him, it’s all about being realistic.
“They’ve tried to regulate every facet of people’s lives. We’ll use professionalism and our wits to try and get (the site) up,” he said. “Will that work? Maybe, maybe not. It’s worth a try, definitely.”