FAKE NEWS

by Ben Taylor

Who is Dr Herman Louise Verhofstadt?
The Economist rarely pays much attention to Tanzania – once or twice a year at best. So when they published not just one but two articles on President Magufuli in a single issue earlier this year, heads turned. The headlines are striking – “Tanzania’s rogue president – Democracy under assault” and “How to save Tanzania” – and the contents even more so. Tanzania is undergoing “a sickening lurch to despotism,” the paper writes, where “opposition politicians are being shot; activists and journalists are disappearing.” This is happening under “an authoritar­ian and erratic” President Magufuli, who is “fast transforming Tanzania … into one of Africa’s more brutal dictatorships”.

Criticism of President Magufuli’s government has been growing in Tanzania, but nobody on the international stage has previously gone nearly so far as the Economist articles. Given the number of people who have been arrested and charged with sedition or various cybercrime offences for expressing criticism of the government, it’s hardly surpris­ing that people are growing more careful what they say. Twaweza’s lat­est Sauti za Wananchi poll found that while 80% say citizens should be allowed to criticise the President, only 36% feel free to do so in practice. So these articles ruffled some feathers.

Including, apparently, the feathers of a Belgian health expert / social worker living and working in Tanzania, by the name of Dr Herman Louise Verhofstadt. He was so upset by the Economist’s writing that he published a response, the beautifully titled: “Facts The Economist Got Them Wrong on Magufuli”:

“Contrary to the fact deprived article, it is my candid observation that to objectively critique Magufuli’s presidency in the circumstances of the transformation he is doing for his people in Tanzania, requires the level of conscious that is unfortunately lacking in the current editorial team at the Economist.”

“In my stay here before and after his presidency, I have witnessed real transformation, his work is exemplary and fascinating one. Everybody here—may be just like what Theresa May is doing in London and what Trump is focusing in Washington, is aware that Tanzania is on the move towards pro-people development; something the Economist is unhappy for.”
It is possible that a Belgian social worker / health expert would feel support for Donald Trump, that his English would be so broken, and that he would express his support both for banning political rallies and preventing pregnant schoolgirls from returning to school after giving birth. But it seems unlikely.

It also seems unlikely that he would choose to do so on a blog that did not exist until that day, published by “a Senegalese journalist”, Sammi Addo, who has apparently no other online presence. Indeed, other that Dr Verhoftsadt’s article, everything else on the site has been copied and pasted from somewhere else – Bloomberg (US), Daily Nation (Kenya), ABC (Australia), etc.

It also seems very unlikely that Dr Herman Louise Verhofstadt would have no previous online presence at all himself, either.

However, despite such strong reasons for doubt, the blogpost was widely promoted and cited, including by the government-owned Daily News and HabariLeo newspapers. The latter translated and published almost the entire blogpost. And the official government spokesperson posted his support for the blog on an official twitter account.

But then, who should appear, from nowhere, but Dr Herman Louise Verhoftstadt himself, with a series of tweets, the first of which made his point clear:

“Greetings @TheEconomist, please ignore this fake news. I have never been to Africa, let alone Tanzania. In my 37 years of medical practice, my work has been around Europe and South East Asia. You need to have a very poorly performing government to come up with a lie like this.”

But something here doesn’t seem quite right either. The new Dr Herman Louise Verhofstadt has no more online presence than the previous one. And more particularly, his profile pic on twitter is a stock image from Getty, freely available to anyone with access to Google. There is no more reason to believe this to be genuine than the original blogpost.

Fake news vs fake news is the new reality, it seems, even in Tanzania.

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