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Zambia: When Wikipedia Entry “Kills” a President

On the morning of 22 January, 2012, Zambians woke up to a statement from State House rebuking news websites for spreading a rumour that President Michael Sata had been assassinated. From the look of things, a lot of Zambians had not seen the story on any of the usual new websites.

The State House released a statement denying that the President had been assassinated. Part of the statement issued by President Sata’s spokesperson, George Chellah stated:

STATE HOUSE is saddened with the malicious, sadistic and unfounded story, which is circulating that His Excellency Mr. Michael Chilufya Sata, President of the Republic of Zambia has died.

This follows the publication of an insensible and sickening article by a named uncouth website, claiming that the Head of State was assassinate…d in the early hours of today, January 22, 2012.

As a matter of fact, State House is aware that such horrid stories are being perpetrated by certain rogue elements, with a bulk of them being investigated for gross misconduct and corruption in the ongoing crusade against graft.

It was only later that it emerged that the rumour stemmed from a Wikipedia entry about Michael Sata giving an obituary of the veteran politician, in office for four months after the September 20 elections which saw the defeat of the MMD, in government for 20 years since 1991.

Although the Wikipedia entry was removed as soon as it was realized to be a hoax, WiredProject316 captured it:

Michael Sata was assassinated in the early hours of the 22nd of January. He was killed through a single shot to the chest, which proved to be fatal…

The location of the person behind the rumor has already been revealed:

The alteration appears to have been done in the United Kingdom town of Crawley by unknown persons using the IP Address 82.11.64.177 through the domain name virginmedia.com with Virgin Media Limited as Internet Service Providers.

The falsified alteration was sent through a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) or Digital Subscriber Loop – a family of technologies that provide internet access by transmitting digital data over the wires of a local telephone network.

The coordinates for the altered post appeared to be 51°6’48″N -0°10’58″W while the weather station code for the alter was UKXX0816, signifying that it was done in the England region of the UK.

Suspicion soon fell on the Zambian Watchdog, which has been at loggerheads with President Sata since his days as an opposition leader. The site has been alleged to be linked to opposition United Party for National Development Party (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema. Hichilema himself denied the allegations of his links to the website on a blogtalkradio show.

The Zambian Watchdog, however, hit back when it turned out that the source of the assassination hoax was in fact Wikipedia:

Front page of The Post, Zambia's leading independent newspaper. Image courtesy of @luchi7

Front page of The Post, Zambia's leading independent newspaper. Image courtesy of @luchi7

Obviously enemies of online media and particularly the Watchdog are disappointed that the story that President Michael Sata has been assassinated was not carried by any Zambian website.

On Sunday, someone, maybe a government operative, altered Sata’s biography on Wikipedia and entered new information that he died on Sunday after taking a single but fatal shot.

Now, Wikipedia is not a Zambian online publication. It is not even a news website.

It is an information website that anyone can edit and post whatever information they want.

The website is hosted in USA but can be edited even from Lundazi (a rural district in eastern Zambia).

President Sata’s spokesperson, George Chellah, has come under fire from a Zambian journalist based in the US, Field Ruwe, who has been writing a series of artices titled “Hunt for a Successor”. Field Ruwe has called for Chellah's dismissal for committing what he called “one of journalism’s deadliest sins”:

President Sata must fire his special assistant for press and public relations George Chellah for committing one of journalism’s deadliest sins—drawing from an unreliable source.
Wikipedia is not a credible and authoritative source!
Chellah should acquaint himself with the Seigenthaler Incident also referred to as the Wikipedia Biography Incident.

Ruwe continued:

The job of special assistant demands a qualified, proficient and skillful operative who plays a major role in bringing notability and decorum to the office of the president. He is a liaison between the government, the public, and the media. Major requirements of a special assistant include the ability to perform extensive research and maintain poise in high-stress environments. The president should have shopped better.
The whole assassination prank does not make sense. When the news came to Chellah’s attention he should have first weighed the gravity of the matter. Before briefing the president and informing the press, he should have checked with Reuters, AP (Associated Press), UPI (United Press International), and couriers BBC and CNN to see if anyone was carrying the story. At the same time he should have kept his ear to the ground for any reaction from the Zambian people.

President Sata recently ordered his government’s Attorney General to have all Zambian “based” news websites registered but it is not known how far the exercise has gone. The former Minister of of Information, Broadcasting and Tourism Given Lubinda once challenged news websites to disclose their physical location.

Rumors of Michael Sata's death were rampant during last year's election campaigns.

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