"40 000 prostitutes" - how rumours and lies become 'fact'

I have been puzzled and annoyed by the ongoing repetition in our media, that 40 000 'prostitutes' are set to be trafficked into South Africa ahead of the World Cup.

This figure is continually repeated (and in one instance, an anti-trafficking video featuring several South African soapie stars, inflated further to 100 000). This despite its being a complete fabrication, with no basis in fact, and no evidence available to substantiate it.

The exact same claims were made ahead of the World Cup in Germany -- but afterwards, an investigation by the Council of the European Union (documents  5006/1/07 and 5008/7) found a grand total of just 5 cases of trafficking -- yes, just 5.

The online publication Spiked, drew attention to this, way back in February 2007. This week, Spiked again takes a look at the ongoing circulation of these nonsense stories. Fascinatingly, the author, Brendan O'Neill, looks at how the imagined numbers have doubled every few years -- starting with estimates of 10 000 sex slaves for the Australian Olympics, then 20 000 in Athens in 2004, 40 000 in Germany in 2006, and on to South Africa (80 000 anyone?).

It's incredible -- even when journalists have contradictory information at their disposal, this nonsense number gets repeated. A recent article on Independent Online is headlined "Thousands of Prostitutes for World Cup", and repeats this statistic, this time apparently from the mouth of the deputy chair of South Africa's Central Drug Authority (CDA). Never mind that later in the article, Johan Kruger, national project co-ordinator for trafficking at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, is quoted questioning these figures. Kruger says, "I'm not sure where that comes from", and goes on to inform his audience that human trafficking actually DECREASED during the world up in Germany.

So where do the figures come from? Well, let's look at what exactly David Bayever, the CDA deputy chair is actually supposed to have said. As reported by IOL, Bayever provides no evidence for this figure and indicates that he is passing on unubstantiated, second hand information. He says the CDA had been warned by the Durban Municipality of the possibility of huge inflows: "Someone informed the Durban municipality," he says, "They got wind of it." So -- it's not the CDA issuing these figures, not even Durban municipality. It's just something somebody got wind of, and passed on. But now that Bayever has mentioned the 40 000, in subsequent reports suddenly it's the authority of CDA that is now quoted as being the source of these figures.

Even more interestingly, the rumours speculate that these women are likely to be imported from Eastern Europe. Now surely any journalist or any reader with half a brain should realise this is nonsense. Given the price of sex on the streets of Hillbrow, how is any trafficker going to make a profit, after having to pay at great expense to import thousands of women covertly from Eastern Europe?

So how does this happen? How do rumours and lies get repeated so often that they take on the status of unquestioned fact? Nick Davies provides ample explanation in his  fascinating study of the problems bedeviling the British media, Flat Earth News. Davies provides a meticulously researched account of how journalism, supposedly the business of reporting the truth, has been "slowly subverted by the mass production of ignorance."

Because of a range of factors - one being the dramatic reduction in the numbers of reporters in newsrooms - journalists have less and less time to try to dig out the truth. This has opened the media to manipulation by sophisticated armies of PR experts and government spin doctors. Of course, the Internet and social media make it all so much easier. That IOL article, for example, is doing the rounds on Facebook.

As part of the research for his book, Davies commissioned researchers from Cardiff University to extensively analyse every single news story put out by the five most prestigious and influential newspapers in the UK, over a two week period.

The findings are shocking -- for instance, in stories that rely on a specific statement of fact, the researchers found that in 70% of cases, "the claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all." This is in the so-called quality press -- in this particular study, Davies didn't even touch the tabloids!

Little wonder then that we are seeing this phenomenon at work in South Africa. Our news media are subject to exactly the same forces that are at play in Britain, and indeed, globally.

It places a huge burden on those of us who do have access to accurate and rigorous research, to ensure that we get our messages out clearly and effectively, so that public policy is not distorted by undiluted mis-information.

In the case of sex work, the unfounded hysteria about trafficking is diverting attention from the real issue -- the need to ensure that the human rights, health and safety of sex workers in South Africa, and indeed in our neighbouring countries, are respected and protected.

This blog is also available at http://wingseed.wordpress.com.

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