Darko Brkan was still living in his parents’ house when he read an article that identified him as the owner of several apartment properties, a man who enjoyed a jetsetting, lavish lifestyle of travel and luxury.
This was news to Brkan, the founding president of the media NGO Zašto Ne which hosts the fact-checking platform Raskrinkavanje in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In fact, he read this about himself in the conservative newspaper Avaz while in Capetown, South Africa, attending Global Fact 6 — a trip paid for by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), since he couldn’t have afforded to attend otherwise.
The articles characterized Brkan as a “bum,” a “quasi-journalist,” and a “weird, obscure character.” They also accused Brkan of working for some unidentified body of power, of being a self-proclaimed regulator of the media, and of pocketing his organization’s budget.
All this, presumably, because Raskrinkavanje had not only fact-checked Avaz but also identified the paper as one of the most prominent producers and sharers of disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
His experience shows that fact-checkers aren’t insulated from becoming the direct target of partisan attacks.
In recent months, both Brkan and Mehmet Atakan Foça of Teyit.org in Turkey have been victim to these kinds of charges, which in both cases emerged from partisan bodies seeking to discredit their work and credibility.
“Fact-checking is a new thing in the media scene, and the reactions from different people and media are still being developed,” Brkan told the IFCN. “There is a whole front of media professionals that find fact-checking to be a novelty they are afraid of, and that they are against in principle.”
To Brkan’s advantage, the newspaper Avaz had reached out to him with questions ahead of the articles’ publication, so Raskrinkavanje was able to preempt the attack. The paper published the complete exchange of questions and answers between Brkan and itself before the articles went public.
“This mitigated the initial blow a lot, since we went public before them on the first day,” Brkan said. “I didn’t have to disclose much, except for the facts on my income and property, but that is not a big problem for me.”
Raskrinkavanje also published two fact-checks of Avaz’s claims, debunking them “the same way we would any other,” Brkan said. The platform also filed a formal complaint asking for public corrections, but have yet to receive a response.
Brkan noted that, “The motives behind the attack, especially with such strength, are hard to understand.” But he speculated that it probably had to do with Raskrinkavanje’s recent fact-checks of Avaz, as well as a research study the platform conducted that found Avaz to be the sixth most prominent publisher and second most prominent producer of disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Trouble in Turkey
Just this week, Mehmet Atakan Foça, the founder of the fact-checking platform Teyit.org in Turkey, suffered similar ad hominem attacks that started on social media and rose to prominence when a politician shared the news on Twitter.
The claim accused Foça of being the son of Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdish leader and founding member of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“I laughed!” Foça told the IFCN about his initial reaction. His father is a salesman, and works in a shop selling toys to children. “Then I made this issue public, and am now trying to make noise.”
Teyit has yet to formally respond, as Foça didn’t want his own platform to have to repeat the bogus claim, nor did he want to give the impression that he was using the organization to defend himself.
There’s also the issue of Foça having to release private information about his own family. “I don’t want to put my family and their information at the center of the public’s attention,” he said. “Conspiracy theorists… will change their path and attack (them).”
The politician who shared the claim on Twitter, Sinan Oğan, is right-wing, and Foça suspects that he took issue with Teyit’s focus on Syrian refugees.
“We publish a lot of fact-checks about Syrian refugees. This politician doesn’t want to see Syrians in Turkey; his political standing and speeches are structured on anger to refugees. When we check false information about them … we prevent him from spreading disinformation to target them.”
Despite the attacks, both fact-checkers believe that the credibility of their platforms is not at stake due to the veracity of their work and loyalty of their communities.
“There is a huge community that believes and supports us,” Foça said. “This kind of attack is the work of a few people who use trolls and paid accounts … This will stay on Twitter, and be forgotten in a couple of months.”
He also called for support from the international community of fact-checkers and journalists, saying that remaining silent would only empower politicians and political parties to magnify their attacks.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brkan said he is still deciding whether it would be worth it to turn to legal action. But he’s confident that Raskrinkavanje’s reaction had been effective.
“We believe that as an organization we came out stronger, and our opinion about the people that took a public stand against us, we think it is much better that their opinion is out in the open,” he said.
He believes the episode was a demonstration of how many media actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina are still uncomfortable with fact-checking, and feel that the practice infringes on their work.
“We hope that in the future we will be able to make the media understand that credibility is the most important value that they need to abide by,” Brkan said.
“In any case, fact-checking and debunking are here and they are here to stay.”
Correction: This story has been updated to identify the fact-checking platform that fact-checked Avaz, Raskrinkavanje. A previous version named Istinomjer, which is also part of Brkan’s media NGO but exclusively fact-checks politicians.