May 6, 2020

“Without fear or favor” was the theme of this past Sunday’s World Press Freedom Day — a phrase that echoes an announcement by New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs when he became the newspaper’s owner 124 years ago.

The fear part certainly resonates with the fact-checkers who challenge political falsehoods and online misinformation around the world. An analysis done this week by the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University found that nearly half of them – 109 of the 236 fact-checkers we track – operate in places where legal protections and the safety of the press are rated “problematic,” “difficult” or “very serious,” according to new data from the World Press Freedom Index.

The numbers are striking because, no matter where it’s done, fact-checking is a bold form of journalism that calls out inaccuracies from politicians, media personalities and other public figures in some of the most difficult places on the planet.

And the impact is even more evident when you count by location: More than two-thirds of the countries where the Reporters’ Lab lists active fact-checking projects are also places where the World Press Freedom Index says journalists are most vulnerable.

The numbers help to explain why some fact-checkers ask the Reporters’ Lab not to display the actual locations of their offices on our international fact-checking map.

They have told us that conditions are so dangerous they operate in secret in order to maintain their ability to publish and protect their personal safety and livelihoods. For instance, Jachai (which means “Verify”) is one of two active fact-checking projects in Dhaka, Bangladesh — a country that ranks 151 out of 180 on the press freedom index, in part because of violence against journalists by pro-government activists.

“[T]he whole initiative is operated anonymously due to security reasons,” a member of its volunteer staff told us in an email message. “The threat is both from the Government side as well as any political or religious fanatic who might feel challenged due to any of our analysis.”

Other fact-checkers can only publish outside the countries they cover to avoid censorship — or worse. Two Iranian fact-checking sites are based halfway around the world from Tehran — the capital city of a country that ranks 173 out of 180 on the index.

The Rouhani Meter, which tracks political promises made by President Hassan Rouhani, and Fact-Nameh (“The Book of Facts”), are both the creations of a Toronto-based technology workshop called ASL19. The group’s name is a reference to the portion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that refers to the freedom of expression and information. It was founded by Iranian expats in Canada to help circumvent online censorship in Iran.

The situation is similar for the team behind Verify-Sy, which focuses on misinformation from war-torn Syria — a country that comes in just behind Iran at 174 on the index. The organization’s veteran journalists work within Syria and across Europe. But the site itself is maintained and published by editors based across the border in southern Turkey.

Legal challenges are also a growing concern for independent fact-checkers as well as established news outlets that take on this kind of reporting.

In one case, the head of an independent fact-checking project faced serious criminal charges and possible imprisonment when prosecutors accused the person of spreading terrorist propaganda. (We aren’t naming the fact-checker or the country here to avoid provoking authorities.) A difficult legal process ultimately ended in an acquittal, but such cases are still reminders to fact-checkers in many places that the government and the law are not on their side. In the Philippines, for instance, the news site Rappler has been publishing fact-checks for years. And its editor, Maria Ressa, has faced multiple legal attacks from President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies.

Rappler is among the signatories of a code of principles maintained by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, which uses independent reviewers to regularly verify each fact-checking organization’s compliance.

The security measures that some fact-checkers employ to protect themselves make it difficult to meet the code’s transparency requirements, which entail identifying themselves and revealing funding sources. Not being a verified signatory can make it hard to receive grants offered by the IFCN and other supporters. It also prevents them from joining some collaborative efforts — such as Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program, which enlists willing IFCN signatories to help combat misinformation that spreads on its platforms. (Disclosure: Facebook also supports the IFCN and is one of the funders of the Duke Tech & Check Collaborative, which is run by the Reporters’ Lab.)

Transparency and participation in these programs can attract different kinds of problems — sometimes providing reasons and means for critics to attack the fact-checkers.

In Spain, WhatsApp’s recent decision to limit messages used to spread online misinformation enraged many supporters of the right-wing Vox party who felt muzzled by the new rule. So, as a newsletter from the American Press Institute and IFCN reported last month, the partisans took out their frustration on WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, by launching a digital harassment campaign aimed at two of its Spanish fact-checking partners, and — even though neither fact-checker had anything to do with the decisions of the messaging service.

These kinds of inaccurate and misdirected attacks are all too familiar to IFCN’s signatories around the world, from Brazil (ranked 107 on the World Press Freedom Index) to Indonesia (119) to Turkey (154) — with many other stops along the way.

The Reporters’ Lab count included all of the IFCN signatories that were verified or in the process of being reviewed as of last week. And comparing the IFCN’s current list to the World Press Freedom Index showed a similar breakdown to the Lab’s broader list of fact-checkers: More than half of the signatories — 49 of 85, as of World Press Freedom Day — were based in countries that were ranked problematic, difficult or very serious.

(The World Press Freedom Index is a project of Reporters Without Borders, which explains its methodology on its website.)

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Mark Stencel (@markstencel) is co-director of the Duke Reporters' Lab, where he studies the spread and impact of political fact-checking. He is NPR's former managing…
Mark Stencel

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