Last week a spoof circulated on social media, particularly WhatsApp, in which a fake NewsDay front page with a screaming headline announced an Ebola outbreak in Zimbabwe.
It said four Pumula South residents had been diagnosed with the deadly virus. Pumula is a suburb of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city.
Although discerning readers would have seen the hoax for what it is, a lot of people, especially tourists who intended to visit and are not always familiar with how our newspapers look, were duped into believing there had indeed been an Ebola outbreak in Zimbabwe.
Local readers would have noticed that the title piece, although it has our colours and fonts, is very different from our own. Our masthead goes right across the page and our bar code is on the back page, not on the front.
Further, the atrociously written story under the headline should have given away the hoax. But the deception has caused panic and despondency among tourism operators and foreign tourists who meant to visit Zimbabwe, with a huge number, according to tourism stakeholders, cancelling their bookings.
NewsDay has been leading in its covering of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and has published highly informative articles on the disease, including which countries have been hit, how to identify affected people and how to respond in such a case.
We have also carried editorial comments imploring the government to ensure that all people are educated on the disease, so that in case of an outbreak everyone is aware of what to do.
We are aware of the sensitivity of the Ebola issue and would not have published anything about an outbreak without the express permission of the government. In other words, we would have based any such story on a statement from the Health ministry or even from the Presidency.
Now that the spoof has caused so much damage, we call upon the police to investigate it and if possible bring the culprit(s) to book. If indeed there have been substantial cancellations of bookings by tourists, it makes it an act of economic sabotage requiring a criminal investigation.
The NewsDay brand has become very powerful especially on the Internet; analytics show it has beaten all local publications and is among the very top in southern Africa. The conman who created the fake page took advantage of this to achieve maximum damage to the Zimbabwe brand; more reason why he/she is dangerous and must be brought to book.
Online readers should be aware that there is a daily update on Ebola on the Internet.
The page is hosted on the Southern African Tourism Update website whose link is here
The update carries a map which shows clearly which countries in Africa have been hit by the disease. It also gives brief, but informative summaries of what countries are doing to prevent the spread of Ebola.
It is heartening to know that almost all countries in southern Africa, with the exception of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are still safe from the epidemic. But this calls for greater vigilance.
Zimbabwe is on high alert with all entry points being monitored.
Tourists, therefore, need not fear to visit. But visitors from affected countries should be honest enough to stay away until the epidemic has been put under control.