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Zambia: Citizen News Website Hacked

On Wednesday, 9 May, 2012, netizens who flock to various citizen-run news websites such as Zambian Watchdog and Tumfweko were met with “page not available” or messages to similar effect. As frustrating at not accessing the websites that have come to be known for their expose stories as it was, the non-technical readers dismissed it as one of those things the internet threw at you once in a while.

A day after the glitch, Zambian Watchdog reported that its website was a target of a sustained attack allegedly by the PF government. Reported the website popularly known as ZWD among Zambian netizens:

PF government agents last Wednesday carried out their most ambitious attack on the Zambian Watchdog website with view of  destroying it.

“The site has been attacked using denial of service and no personal information has been compromised”
The attackers have used Optima/Darkness DDoS botnet that is popular in the Russian-speaking cybercrime black market.
The Attack caused inaccessibility to the news for close to 8 hours.
Other websites like http://www.tumfweko.com were also brought down that day.

President Sata looking at the Facebook page of an opposition politician

President Sata looking at the Facebook page of opposition MMD MP Dora Siliya. Picture courtesy of McLan Mkuni on the Bemba vs Nyanja: Miponto Sha Ci Mbuya group page.

Although difficult to prove that the attack was carried out by the PF government, the relationship between the Zambian Watchdog and the PF has not been all rosy even as an opposition party before the 2011 elections. President Michael Sata’s statement when he swore in Attorney General Mumba Malila shortly after he took up the president did not help matters.

President Sata told Mr Malila who had once held the same position under the defeated MMD government:

“Last year when we were preparing for elections, these so called unregistered internet sites reported that Mr Sata had collapsed, Mr Sata is very sick, Mr Sata has died…

“So, I am not asking for a witch- hunt, but you as Attorney-General, let us enforce the laws of this country because all these internets are all orchestrated by the UPND. Last year the Watchdog website lied that he was dead, he was too sick, when in fact not. “

Chilling though, was a story that was reported earlier this year that the government had released K5 billion or US$1 million to send police and security staff around the world to train them to hack the targeted websites.

The Independent Post, which was also hit by a similar attack, quoting an email it got from Zambian Watchdog  quoted from the Cyber War Zone website, reported:

Watchdog comment: The Watchdog is aware of the hackers sponsored by the PF government to wipe out all Independent news websites in Zambia.

About K5 billion tax payers money has been released to government agents and some have been sent to China and other countries to learn how to hack websites. Even though we hear that most of this money has been used on beer and prostitutes.

Graph of the distribution of DDoS attacks on Zambian Watchdog. Image source: zambianwatchdog.com.

A Wikipedia entry claiming that President Sata had been assassinated did not help matters in the relationship between citizen news websites and the government. It was shortly after that incident that the reported K5 billion was released for the war against recalcitrant news websites.

Commenting on the Zambian Watchdog attack story, Mufana Wamahafu wrote:

The PF will soon run out of cash in their quest to close critical online publications.Even if ZWD is brought down today, another one will immediately be setup by the same owners. The PF will have to subcontract the Vietnamese and Russians at what cost? Because we all know that PF has no capacity to even learn how to go about this whole process.Its a party of thick heards. I mean the president is a grade ZERO ZERO ZERO. Please hear this: ONLINE NEWS IS HERE TO STAY. FINITO!!! This is just a tip of the iceberg, ZWD and the rest of these online newspapers has’nt even reached their optimum. Its too early to press the panic button ba kaponya imwe [you louts].

Reacted a reader calling himself Say What?:

DoS attacks don’t come cheap and are difficult to sustain.
If the PF really is behind this then some great use of our tax money, huh? No price too high to pay for suppressing freedom of speech? Guess I missed that line in the PF Manifesto.

But one reader, Jackson, had a different view:

I DONT THINK A SERIOUS GOVT. CAN LOSE SLEEP OVER A SMALL,BIASED,TRIBAL AND UNETHICAL WEBSITE. THESE ALLEGATIONS ARE TOTALLY BASELESS.

On 2 April, 2012 Zambian Watchdog reported that the government has intensified crackdown on Internet users:

The PF government has heightened its internet crack down on citizens who use to discuss matters that affect them.

But the crackdown on the Internet may land the Zambian government in trouble as it risks being listed as one of the Internet enemies.

The government through its secret service is now monitoring and gathering Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of people who regularly comment on political matters on popular news websites or social media like Facebook and Twitter.

As example, the Zambia Media Forum, a private discussion group has been invaded by state agents who are passing on details of group members to the state.

Zambia Medium Forum is a discussion group whose members are mostly Zambian journalists and Civil Society activists. Some of the members work for government and parastatal companies.

Last week, at least three members of the Forum were interrogated by OP [Office of the Predisent] agents from their respective offices.

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