April 30, 2019

Fact-checking the fact-checker: Over 50% of Vera Files funding from CIA-linked orgs


Why don't we fact-check the fact-checker?

In a Facebook Newsroom post, Facebook product manager Tessa Lyons said [FB]:
“Our partners are independent and certified through the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network.”
One of the core requirements to become a Facebook fact-checker is membership in the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) of the Florida-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

In fairness to Lyons, she also acknowledged allegations of bias among the website’s fact checkers when she, in the same newsroom post, said:
“While we work with the International Fact-Checking Network to approve all our partners and make sure they have high standards of accuracy, fairness and transparency, we continue to face accusations of bias.”
The social network currently has two fact-checkers in the Philippines: Rappler and Vera Files.

In this article, we will examine Vera Files.

IFCN Code of Principles: Nonpartisanship Policy

Poynter-IFCN has a Code of Principles that it describes as “a series of commitments organizations abide by to promote excellence in fact-checking [IFCN].”

Each IFCN member is required to adhere to this Code, determined through yearly assessments.

According to the IFCN website, Vera Files co-founder and UP Journalism professor Yvonne Chua submitted an application of behalf of her organization. This was assessed – and approved – by IFCN external assessor Jeremaiah M. Opiniano, a Journalism assistant professor at the University of Santo Tomas.
A screenshot of Vera Files' application sent to the Poynter Institute's International Fact-checking Network.
Opiniano assessed and approved Vera Files’ applications twice: once in 2017 and another time in 2018.

Part of the IFCN code of ethics is a nonpartisanship policy, which requires applicants to “share evidence of your policy preventing staff from direct involvement in political parties and advocacy organizations.”

In response, Vera Files in its 2017 application said (Criterion 2b):
“We don’t take money from politicians, political parties or partisan groups.”

Vera Files reiterated this claim in its 2018 application (Criterion 2b), where it stated:
“VERA Files prohibits its trustees and staff from taking money from politicians, political parties or partisan groups...”
A screenshot of Vera Files' attestation of nonpartisanship in its 2018 IFCN application 
The problem, however, is that a closer look at its finances show that it may have been lying in both 2017 and 2018.

Let’s discuss this in greater detail.

Vera Files Funding Sources

Section 4 of the IFCN Code of Principles application form, entitled “Transparency of Funding & Organization”, requires Vera Files to disclose funding sources.

To address this in its 2017 application, Vera Files submitted its 2016 SCHEDULE OF CONTRIBUTIONS/DONATIONS - PRIVATE ENTITIES that listed five sources of funding.

Vera Files' 2016 funding sources are as follows:
  • National Endowment for Democracy (NED): Php 2,539,050.00.
  • World Health Organization (WHO): Php 1,998,879.79
  • The Asia Foundation (TAF): Php2,101,401.00
  • Reporters Without Borders Germany (RWB): Php 736,299.58
  • Others: Php 1,001,891.10
A screenshot of the Funding Source Document Vera Files submitted to IFCN in 2017. 

In its 2018 application, Verafiles listed three sources for 2017 funding, namely:
  • National Endowment for Democracy: Php 4,034,313.00
  • World Health Organization: Php 1,683,150.00
  • Others: Php 1,132,892.29

A little arithmetic shows that Vera Files:
  • derived 54% of its 2016 private funding from NED and TAF
  • derived 59% of its 2017 private funding from NED alone.
Now, let’s examine these two major funders.

Vera Files Funder #1: National Endowment for Democracy

NED, in its “About” page, describes itself as “a private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world” [NED].

The description sounds innocuous enough.

However, in his 2008 piece entitled “NED et. al.: The CIA’s Successors and Collaborators”, published in both the Canadian Centre for Global Research and Globalization (Global Research) and the French Le Monde Diplomatique, Hernando Calvo Ospina wrote [GlobalResearch]:
“When a scandal in the 1980s revealed the CIA’s 35 years of international manipulations, President Ronald Reagan established the National Endowment for Democracy as a more discreet and less controversial instrument. It had the same purpose – to destabilise unfriendly governments by funding the opposition... Although legally an NGO, the NED was funded from the State Department budget, subject to congressional approval”
But that’s coming from a NED critics, so let’s cite the statement of NED people themselves. In a 1991 interview with the Washington Post, NED founder and theoretical planner Allen Weinstein said [WaPo]:
“A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
Weinstein’s statement basically means NED is an offshoot of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

The NED of today affirms this, as the “History” section of its “About” page states [NED]:
“In the aftermath of World War II…. U.S. policy makers resorted to covert means, secretly sending advisers, equipment, and funds to support newspapers and parties under siege in Europe. When it was revealed in the late 1960’s that some American PVO’s were receiving covert funding from the CIA to wage the battle of ideas at international forums, the Johnson Administration concluded that such funding should cease, recommending establishment of ‘a public-private mechanism’ to fund overseas activities openly.”
That is, NED does today what the CIA did beforehand.

According to NED's Awarded Grants Database, NED's grants to Vera Files are specifically intended for the latter's fact-checking operations [NED | Archived]:

A Screenshot of NED's list of grants to Vera Files.

Vera Files Funder #2: The Asia Foundation

According to its own website, the Asia Foundation “is a nonprofit international development organization committed to improving lives across a dynamic and developing Asia” [AF].

Like NED, the description sounds sufficiently harmless.

A 1977 New York Times article “Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the C.I.A.” detailing Asia Foundation’s beginnings, however, suggests otherwise, as it states [NYT]:
“The Asia Foundation was headed for years by the late Robert Blum who, several sources said, resigned from the C.I.A. to take it over. The foundation provided cover for at least one C.I.A. operative and carried out a variety of media‐related ventures, including a program, begun in 1955, of selecting and paying the expenses of Asian journalists for a year of study in Harvard's prestigious Neiman Fellowship program.”
Side Note: The managing editor of Rappler (the other Facebook fact-checker in the Philippines), Glenda Gloria, is a 2018 Neiman Fellow [Rappler], and NED also funds Rappler.
A screenshot of the 1977 New York Times article “Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the C.I.A.” detailing Asia Foundation’s beginnings.
A more informative description can be found in the declassified 2000 CIA document that states [CIA]:
“The Asia Foundation was originally a creation of the Executive Branch intended to promote U.S. Foreign Policy Interests in the region”
A screenshot of the declassified 2000 CIA document describing The Asia Foundation.

The same CIA document states that in 1975:
“… the State Department… appointed a panel of private citizens with Foreign Affairs experience to review the foundation’s record and potential for assisting in the achievement of U.S. objectives in Asia. The panel concluded that the foundation is an effective instrument for furthering of United States interests in Asia…”
A screenshot of the declassified 2000 CIA document describing The Asia Foundation.
In his 2011 paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Research [ResearchGate], Washington-based Saint Martin University Sociology and Anthropology professor Dr. David Price aptly cited Asia foundation as a “CIA funding front”.

Fact-checking the Fact-checker

Recall that Vera Files claimed in its 2018 IFCN application that it “prohibits its trustees and staff from taking money from politicians, political parties or partisan groups”.

Vera Files reiterated this claim in its own FAQ article “What you want to know about ‘VERA FILES FACT CHECK’” as Vera Files' response to the question:
How sure are we that you’re not backed by a politician or political party?
But aren’t the National Endowment for Democracy and the Asia Foundation, both of whom are widely considered as instruments of U.S. Foreign Policy, political parties? 

Both sure are parties, and their respective histories shows they are very political.

The Collins Dictionary defines "political party" as "an organization of people who share the same views about the way power should be used in a country or society".


NED and TAF, being US Foreign Policy insturments, squarely fit into that description.

For the last two reporting periods (2016 and 2017), Vera Files has been sourcing over half of its operating expenses from these two organizations.

While Vera Files claims that it generates some income from sales, its 2016 Audited Financial Statement (AFS) shows that of the Php 7.8 million in 2016 revenues Php 7.3 million comes from Grants and Donations?

Moreover, Vera Files’ 2017 Audited Financial Statement shows that its entire Php 6.9 million in 2017 revenues are from Grants and Donations?

A screenshot of Vera Files' 2017 AFS showing revenue sources for 2016 and 2017. Note that virtually all of its revenues come from grants and donations.
And where do over half of these grants and donations come from?

NED and TAF.

A closer look at Vera Files 2016 AFS shows that it generated only Php 2.45 million in revenues in 2015, Php 2.3 million of which is from Donations and Grants.

A screenshot of Vera Files' 2016 AFS showing revenue sources for 2016 and 2015. Note that its revenues TRIPLED as after it received funding from NED and TAF.
That is, NED and TAF tripled Vera Files’ revenues starting in 2016 which, by the way, is the same year President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office.

This is especially relevant in Vera Files context because the Duterte Administration, i.e. the government of the jurisdiction within which Vera Files operates, is currently clashing with US Foreign Policy as Duterte’s independent foreign policy “upends Washington’s Pivot to Asia”.

How in the world can Vera Files claim non-partisanship when it operates in the Philippines, a country whose Foreign Policy interests clash with those of Vera Files’ funders?

Should the Poynter Institute, which manages the International Fact-checking Network, reassess Vera Files’ eligibility as a Fact-checker given that Vera Files receives funding from political parties?

Oh, wait!

NED’s Awarded Grants Database shows Poynter has been receiving NED funding annually since 2015 [NED].

A Screenshot of NED's list of grants to Poynter Institute.
In short, Poynter-IFCN and Vera Files share the same sugar daddy.

The backbone of Facebook’s Fact-checking – Poynter’s International Fact-checking Network – is in itself funded by a US Foreign Policy instrument NED, the same NED that funds Vera Files.

Would you care to fact-check this, Miss Ellen Tordesillas? [ThinkingPinoy/RJ Nieto]

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