Politicians have lied since the very beginning of politics. Ramses II fought to a stalemate against the Hittites then came back and announced to his fellow Egyptians that he'd thoroughly conquered the adversary in battle. PBS, oddly, dates the beginning of political falsehood more than a thousand years later to the Roman emperor Augustus, who transformed himself into a god. In between, those first democrats the Athenians surely must have indulged in plenty of falsehoods, if Aristophanes is to be believed.
We know they lie, but only recently have we begun to track just how bad their lying is. In American politics, it is perhaps surprising to realize that the rigorous subjecting of political statements to fact-checking is a relatively recent phenomenon. Factcheck.org, run out of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only started back in 1993, too late to evaluate the whoppers of the Reagan years. PolitiFact, which runs the infamous Truth-O-Meter, is an even more recent development: less than seven years old. The evaluation of the statements of politicians, lobbyists, and interest group representatives was previously rather scattershot. Now we can get near instantaneous report cards on major speeches, Sunday morning speechifying, and off-the-wall Tweets. The Washington Post's Fact Checker even livens things up by using Pinocchio's nose for a graphic.
Promoting accountability is never an easy task, particularly in countries just emerging from authoritarianism. In Serbia, the Center for Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) was founded a couple years after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2002 -- by several of the activists involved in bringing him down. They were disappointed in the quality of Serbian democracy. Rather than join a particular political party, they decided to subject all the parties to the same rigorous standards.
One of their most popular projects is a Serbian Truth-O-Meter. "In 2005," explains Vuka Crnjanski Sabovic, the founder and director of CRTA, "there was a big corruption scandal involving the minister of capital investments, Vladimir Ilic. He gave a statement that if the theft is big you can't keep quiet about it, but it's okay to steal a little bit. What kind of message does that send to society, that it's okay to steal a little bit? Please can you give me your wallet and I'll take just a little?! We were angry, not just about what he was saying but because there was no reaction from other politicians, from the media, from independent institutions."
Inspired by the American Truth-O-Meter, she and her colleagues decided to create their own version. One of the immediate effects has been around political promises. "The previous president and several ministers admitted that everyone was paying attention to deadlines," explains Sabovic. "There was a huge amount of promises. Nobody, not even the media, was keeping track. But then we started to keep track, and the politicians stopped."
Accountability is a 24/7 job. CRTA is trying to make parliament more open, government more transparent, the judiciary more accountable, and the media more aggressive. And they're doing so in an environment in which corruption is rife and the assassination of a prime minister took place only a decade ago.
I sat down with three staff of CRTA last October: Vuka Crnjanski Sabovic, executive director Dusan Jordovic, and staffer Bojana Milosevic.
Can you give me your favorite examples of where Truthometer intervened in public sphere in successful ways?
Vuka Crnjanski Sabovic: We have a favorite example. It's not successful, but we think it will be a turning point for Truthometer.
We've evaluated more than 1,500 statements. When you look through these evaluations, one person is really the worst. That's Milutin Mrkonjić, the minister for transportation. He was minister of infrastructure in the previous government. When I say the worst, his red marks -- bad evaluations get red marks -- total more than 85 percent. When we evaluate, only facts count. We only evaluate statements published in newspapers or aired on television. They're not rumors or off-the-record comments. We have to determine whether the facts in these statements are true or not: if the person fulfilled a promise, if he was consistent in what he was saying.
When this government was formed, Milutin Mrkonjić was again one of the people on the list to become a minister. We said, "Come on guys, you're talking about accountability, but this guy is lying all the time!" We decided to have a press conference to ask Prime Minister Ivica Dačić whether he will again appoint Milutin Mrkonjić to the government, and then we asked people to react. We had a petition with 10,000 signatures in a couple days. We motivated citizens to react.
Unfortunately he became the minister. But people were clear that accountability is worth it. Because of that, I think this is the turning point for Truthometer. People showed that they trust us. We had an action where people automatically sent emails to Dačić's office. There were a couple hundred emails asking for Milutin Mrkonjić not to be a member of government. Now we are following what is going on. So, we have a constituency that supports this idea. That's something we're proud of. This is really important for our society, which is really passive. After 2000, people didn't become active and engaged.
Do you have any examples of politicians becoming more careful because of Truthometer?
Vuka Crnjanski Sabovic: You know, there is no word in Serbian for accountability. But when the previous government had a restructuring, the prime minister used the word "accountability" for the first time. The previous president and several ministers admitted that everyone was paying attention to deadlines. There was a huge amount of promises. Nobody, not even the media, was keeping track.
But then we started to keep track, and the politicians stopped. Maybe they don't want to give any more deadlines for their promises. Also, the media is taking greater care to keep track of what politicians say. Several of these politicians have referred to Truthometer and what we highlighted on our website. I think this has influenced the political situation. But of course it's not enough. We can't stop and say that our job is done.
To read the rest of the interview, click here.
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