Authorities illegally shutter radio station in Zambia

New York, January 27, 2011–Authorities in Zambia’s Western Province must immediately allow community station Radio Lyambayi to return to air, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The government raided the private broadcaster based in Mongu, about 360 miles (580 kilometers) west of the capital, Lusaka, carting away computers and other broadcasting equipment on January 16, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

Police then interrogated News Editor Nyambe Muyumbana on January 18 for more than nine hours about the intent of the debate program, and summoned station manager Mukeya Liwena, according to local journalists. Neither has been formally charged.

Mongu experienced deadly clashes between security forces and demonstrators the day of the raid. The indigenous Lozi-speaking people have stirred a secessionist movement in the area, fueled by claims of poverty and marginalization. Mongu is the capital of Western Province, formerly known as Barotseland, a former British protectorate that united with Zambia under the 1964 Barotse Agreement.

The government’s action violated the 2002 Independent Broadcasting Act, which established procedures and an independent authority to sanction broadcasters, according to MISA Chairman Daniel Sikazwe.

“We call on the government to immediately allow Radio Lyambayi back on the air and to return its equipment,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita.  “This is a clear violation of the law.”

Various government officials have publicly justified the station’s closure by claiming it had incited unrest, without specifying how exactly. Private station Muvi TV quoted  Western Province official Richard Mwapela as saying that government ordered police to shut down the station for “playing an advertisement that was allegedly inciting people to rise against the government.” (Mwapela did not specify what advertisement he was referring to.) Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane accused the station of inciting residents against the laws of Zambia, reported Lusaka Times. The state-run Daily Mail reported a story describing the incident as “an illegal radio broadcast on Radio Lyambai in which alarming sentiments bordering on treason were aired.”

MISA Zambia, which analyzed a recording of Radio Lyambayi’s broadcasts, determined that the accusations of incitement to violence were baseless, Sikazwe told CPJ. The station had aired a musical selection that included Bob Marley’s Burnin’ and Lootinalong with speeches by Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandelaand a debate program about secession, Sikazwe said.

National police spokeswoman Siaman Ndandula declined to comment to CPJ on the shutdown of the station, referring inquiries to Inspector-General of Police Francis Kabonde. Kabonde did not immediately return a request for comment.