Stats SA suspends censor suspect

A Statistics SA data capturer has been suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into edits on Wikipedia's "HIV/Aids in SA" page.

Last week, ITWeb reported that at least one government employee had made extensive deletions on the article. The only information left on the page was a section describing government's action plan to curb the disease.

At the time, acting statistician-general Rashad Cassim confirmed the IP address used to make the edits was from its DNS server in Centurion. However, he said that as the IP address acted as a proxy for all its users to the Internet, it may be difficult to link this to a specific individual.

Internal investigations

Since then, Stats SA has identified the computer from which the actions were made, says Cassim.

"We have, through some extensive work, identified the computer from which the [actions] originated and suspended the person who the computer is linked to. We are very serious about carrying out an internal investigation and are in the process of instituting disciplinary proceedings," he explains.

Stats SA spokesman Trevor Oosterwyk says the suspended employee is a data capturer. However, no further information on the employee will be released until the agency's full investigation and disciplinary action is completed.

"This is a precautionary suspension until all internal processes are completed. I don't know how long it will take to finish the investigation and hearings; however, we would like to reiterate that we are desirous to deal with this situation as quickly as possible," he says.

Niggling doubt

Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has welcomed the agency's speedy action on the issue.

"We appreciate the fact that Stats SA is taking the matter seriously. However, we hope that it will release the findings of its investigation once it is complete," says Sandy Kalyan, DA spokesperson on health and HIV/Aids.

Of utmost importance is that the agency reveal on whose instruction the person was acting, explains Kalyan.

"I cannot believe that a person woke up one morning and decided on his/her own to make such changes. We want to know who was behind this."

In response, Oosterwyk reiterates Stats SA has never endorsed such actions.

"These actions have nothing to do with our strategy and it is certainly not ours or government's intention to censor Wikipedia or our constitutional right to free speech."

Legal implication

Dr Pieter Fourie, author of "The Political Management of HIV and Aids in South Africa: One burden too many?", says he is still considering whether to take legal action, following the reference to his book being deleted from the Wikipedia page.

"If it is a lone employee acting on his own accord, then I won't pursue it legally. However, if it turns out that there is more to it than just one person, then I may reconsider.

"For me, it's quite telling though that this whole matter came out of a department that is charged with the dissemination of information.

"Then again, what better advertising for my book could I have got than government trying to censor my research?" he says.

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