Fact checking

Who is making sure that the paper Tanzania’s Mission Opposition gets continued play in the  Tanzanian media? Most recently it made the front page of Mwanahalisi just last month. Last year it got play for nearly a week in much of Tanzania’s print media. As we have noted before, the authors (Barak Hoffman and Lindsay Robinson of Georgetown University) gave an excellent overview of the structures underpinning CCM’s incumbency. We also pointed out that they were maybe remiss in making detailed allegations of corruption against a leading opposition presidential candidate in 2005. Turns out the only source for this was a piece in the ruling party’s newspaper in the run up to the election. I’d say some triangulation would have been in order.

The Mwanahalisi piece goes with another allegation from the same authors and the same paper. This time, we are told that $20 million of the funds embezzled from the Bank of Tanzania’s External Payments Account was used in just two constituencies in the 2005 elections. The source given is “a Ugandan newspaper”. Which one? The Monitor?  Or maybe Red Pepper?

Now look at the figures. About $111 million was embezzled from EPA. This mysterious newspaper is suggesting that 18 percent of that was spent on just two constituencies. Now one would be naive to think that all the EPA money was used for political purposes. So we need a rough and ready split. The split used by John Githongo, as reported by Michela Wrong,  is 70:30. Thirty percent of proceeds from grand political corruption tend to be used for political purposes. The rest is for property, hummers and girls (in, I would guess, roughly that order).

Now let’s be hard on ourselves and turn it around and assume that 70 percent  – $77 million – was used for political purposes. With this assumption, 25 percent of campaign funds would have been used to contest just two constituencies out of 232 electoral constituencies and a campaign for the presidency and the far greater number of council contests.

Is this likely?

As researchers, we come across outrageous allegations all the time. Very few of those make the final cut because that would be irresponsible. Maybe it is easier to do so if you are far away in Washington? But it should be remembered that these are real allegations against real people in a real country as a real election approaches.

Journalists too need to be a little more rigorous. Just because something is published in the Journal of Democracy doesn’t make it gospel.

Tanzania’s Missing Opposition is available here (ungated) and here (at Journal of Democracy).

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6 responses to “Fact checking

  1. Very interesting article! Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Democracy and Society » Clearing up the facts

  3. Barak Hoffman here, co-author of the article. The source of the claim about EPA funds being diverted to finance campaigns is the East Africa Business Week; we had this in a footnote that got cut during editing. This is our fault and you are right to take us to task for this. However, your broader criticism, that we rely too heavily on newspaper articles, I think is a bit over the top. It is not possible to do research without relying at least a bit on primary news reporting – who can collect every fact? To presume that everything that sounds suspicious is off-limits is to say that we should not rely on the media for reporting. This would make research nearly impossible.

  4. Hi Barak, thanks for your comment. I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I thought you relied too much on newspaper sources. I don’t think so. And as I said before, it’s an excellent dissection of incumbency.

    The issue of newspapers as a research source is interesting. There are others who rely a hell of a lot more on such sources (or even just embassy translated summaries). We can’t ignore them as a source (behind me are a couple of folders of curling and yellowing cuttings). But we do need to be very careful with them. Certainly, in longer pieces – dissertations etc. – the limitations should be clearly stated and researchers need some framework – not too rigid – that can guide their use.

    cheers

  5. I agree with your skepticism, especially after spending some time looking at the links between media owners and politicians (e.g., Reg Mengi and Samwel Sitta) and at media owners who are politicians (e.g., Rostam Aziz). I haven’t come across instances of the media blatantly lying in Tanzania (although they most certainly exaggerate). Rather I think it seems to be more about whose interests are being served by reporting (or not reporting or reporting misleadingly) on what issue.

  6. there can be the occasional lie, of course, but as you say, the key is to have the interests in teh back of your mind. This isn’t always easy though, given the ‘shifting geometry’ of such interests. A great phrase, from Tim Kelsall, that can applied to many things!

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