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Search still on for missing Malawi vice president, 2020 photo used to falsely depict crashed aircraft

IN SHORT: A military plane carrying Malawi’s second-in-command has been missing since the morning of 10 June 2024. A massive search operation is underway, which some social media users have used to spread misinformation.

Note: This report includes details about a developing news story. Information was, as far as possible, correct at the time of publication but may change rapidly.

On Monday 10 June 2024, a plane carrying Malawi's vice president Saulos Chilima and nine other people disappeared during what was supposed to be a 45-minute flight.

A statement from president Lazarus Chakwera said the Malawi Defence Force aircraft “went off the radar” after leaving the capital Lilongwe.

Chakwera said in a national address late on Monday that a search and rescue operation led by soldiers was continuing, adding that it was a “heartbreaking situation”.

“I know we are all frightened and concerned. I too am concerned. But I want to assure you that I am sparing no available resource to find that plane. And I am holding onto every fibre of hope that we will find survivors.”

As the search continued, some online users claimed that the 51-year-old Chilima had been found dead. “What a tragedy in Malawi,” one user told his more than 58,000 followers on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. 

The account also shared what appeared to be an official statement from the presidency, dated 11 June, and an image of a crashed aircraft. (Note: the account has since deleted the post but it is archived here.)

The photo in question has since been reshared widely on Facebook, with the same claim that it confirms the vice president’s death.

But has the hunt for the missing aircraft ended in tragedy, as claimed online? Africa Check took a closer look.

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Press release fabricated, no evidence for claim

We searched the Malawian presidency's website and official handles but found no evidence of the 11 June statement. 

A reverse image search of the photo in the posts revealed it is from a stock photography website.

The caption said it was taken on 26 September 2020 and that it showed the crash site of an An-26 military aircraft in Chuguev in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.

The crash killed at least 26 of the 27 people on board. According to the caption, the plane had been on a training flight and was landing at a military base near Chuguev.

The photo in the social media posts is not of the crashed plane carrying Malawi's vice president. Such false claims can spread quickly through social media and news outlets, misleading the public and causing confusion.

Premature reports of the death of a senior official can also disrupt government operations and decision-making.   

Read our guide to verifying breaking news to protect yourself from false information during a crisis.

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