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Govt attempts Wikipedia censorship

An ITWeb investigation reveals at least one government employee has censored Wikipedia's entry on SA's HIV/Aids policies.

Wikipedia's edit history for the article “HIV/Aids in South Africa” shows repeated vandalism from IP address 164.151.130.36. This address resolves to a machine called mx1.statssa.gov.za, located just off the Ben Schoeman highway in Centurion, and is owned and operated by the South African government.

SA's acting statistician-general Dr Rashad Cassim says the location provided is the State IT Agency's premises, on John Vorster Drive, in Centurion, which hosts Statistics SA's DNS server.

Repeated deletes

The edit history of the HIV/Aids entry shows the person – or persons – making multiple deletions on 27 July.

In the first change, the person removed the introduction to the topic along with supporting references.

This was replaced with the comment: “I think that was all bullshit, thats why i deleted it. Thank you motherf***er! [sic]”

The second edit sees the “effects” section of the entry removed. The third and fourth edits remove references to Pieter Fourie's article: "The Political Management of HIV and Aids in South Africa: One burden too many?" and the Aids Portal SA Web page respectively.

What remained of the entry was the section describing the actions being taken by government to curb the spread of the disease.

Other Wikipedia contributors reversed the changes within minutes and vandalism was cited. Wikipedia's policy cites vandalism as “any addition, removal, or change of content made in a deliberate attempt to compromise the integrity of Wikipedia.”

Freedom fails

The Freedom of Expression Institute's (FXI's) executive director Jane Duncan has called on Stats SA to act decisively on the “extremely disturbing” issue.

“Under the Public Service Act, government employees are ethically obliged to promote freedom of information. Clearly this person was acting in a censorial position and trying to skew the picture of HIV/Aids in the country. This is in direct contravention of the obligations of public servants.”

She adds: “Given the controversy surrounding SA's approach to HIV/Aids, it is extremely important for government to distance itself from this matter. If Stats SA fails to act, it will create the impression that they endorse the actions,” she explains.

Sandy Kalyan, the Democratic Alliance's spokesperson on health and HIV/Aids, has called for an urgent investigation into the matter.

“The DA condemns the actions of this Stats SA employee in the strongest possible manner. An investigation needs to be done to establish the reason for the irresponsible action and under whose instructions the person was acting.”

Adds Kalyan: “If the employee was found to be acting on the say-so of the Department of Health, it would confirm to the DA that health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is still in denial on the matter of HIV/Aids.”

Identity unknown

However, Cassim denies the action formed part of any strategy on the part of the organisation.

“Stats SA does not condone or support the activities described. While the editing of Wikipedia entries is not specifically forbidden [in its Internet policy], the policy does prohibit any activity that 'could lead to civil or criminal litigation against Stats SA',” he says.

Cassim says Stats SA will attempt to uncover the identity of the person responsible and appropriate disciplinary procedures will follow.

However, he notes the IP address acts as a proxy to the Internet community for all Stats SA users. As a result, it is not possible to link this to a specific individual.

Both the DA and FXI have warned they will closely watch the organisation's progress on the investigation.

Related stories:
DA walks out of censorship Bill hearings
Global online censorship rising fast
New tool outs Wiki tricksters
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