Zambia elections
A Zambian Electoral Commission officer during the 2016 general elections. On June 24, 2021, an unknown group of people tried to set fire to the Kalungwishi Radio Station, in the Chienge district of Zambia’s northern Luapula Province. (AFP/Gianluigi Guercia)

Zambian radio station transmitter damaged in arson attack

In the early hours of June 24, 2021, an unknown group of people tried to set fire to the Kalungwishi Radio Station in the Chienge district of Zambia’s northern Luapula Province, damaging transmission cables, a mixer, and air conditioning equipment, according to a news report quoting the local chapter of the regional press freedom group Media Institute of Southern Africa, and Pilate Nsama, the station’s administrative officer, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Nsama told CPJ that a group showed up at the radio station, which is owned by a local politician, at around 1 a.m. with two containers of gasoline, which they sprinkled around the outside of the perimeter before setting it alight. 

A security guard who was alone at the station had spotted three people trying to set fire to the station, said Nsama, but they ran away after he shouted for help. The guard sought help from community members to douse the fire, and their quick action prevented the fire from spreading, Nsama said, adding, “The people we serve in this community prevented a disaster from happening.” 

The fire did not damage the inside of the radio station, but the damage to the transmission cables prevented them from broadcasting for two days, he said.  

On the day of the fire, police spokesperson Esther Katongo was quoted by the state broadcaster, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, as saying that an investigation was underway. Reached for comment on July 19, 2021, via messaging app, Katongo told CPJ that the matter was still under investigation and that “no stone will be left unturned.” 

Zambia’s broadcasting regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, condemned the arson attack, saying it was a serious criminal offense and a grave infringement on media freedom and the public’s right to information, according to a statement published on its Facebook page on the day of the attack.

Austin Kayanda, national director of MISA-Zambia, told CPJ via messaging app that “the biggest problem is that the radio station is owned by a politician,” referring to Given Katuta, a former member of Parliament who is running in Zambia’s August 12 general elections.

The IBA dispatched a fact-finding team to understand what led to the arson attack, according to Kayanda, who added that he believes politics was involved. CPJ reached out to IBA Director General Josephine Mapoma about the findings of their investigation, but she said the institution does not divulge such information to third parties.

In the past seven months, three other radio stations have come under attack ahead of the country’s elections.

On February 9, 2021, supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front allegedly attacked privately owned Liberty Community Radio in the northern Mporokoso district for featuring opposition leader Harry Kalaba of the Democratic Party, MISA-Zambia stated. Armed with catapults and iron bars, the attackers smashed a window pane at the station entrance, according to MISA-Zambia. No arrests were made, and Katongo told CPJ that this attack, as well, was still being investigated.

On February 21, 2021, Patriotic Front supporters also allegedly attacked Luswepo Radio in the northern Mbala district when the community-owned station featured Kalaba, according to a news report. The PF supporters, armed with machetes and stones, damaged a wire fence to gain entry to the station, station manager Tabitha Nkomeshya told CPJ via messaging app. They dispersed after police fired five warning shots, while a few were arrested and later released, Nkomeshya added. Mapoma was quoted by the privately owned News Diggers site as saying the IBA was going to probe the recent attacks. When asked about the IBA findings, Mapoma reiterated to CPJ that the institution does not discuss investigations with third parties.

On March 10, 2021, Patriotic Front supporters teargassed Chete FM in the northern district of Nakonde during a broadcast featuring members of the opposition United Party for National Development, including Provincial Chairperson Rev. Mathews Chilekwa and George Sinkala, according to a MISA-Zambia statement and a report by News Diggers. The attackers forced their way into the station armed with stones and pepper spray, station manager Moses Mbewe told CPJ via messaging app. The PF supporters then disrupted the radio program by pepper-spraying the station, making it hard for staff members to breathe, and beating opposition members taking part in the program, he added.

Lizzie Machina, police commissioner of Muchinga Province, where the Luswepo and Chete stations are located, told CPJ via messaging app that the investigations into both attacks were still ongoing.

PF media director Antonio Mwanza told CPJ via phone that the ruling party did not receive any official complaints against its supporters in Mbala, Mporokoso, and Nakonde, which he said means  the mention of the party’s name was mere speculation. “However, we do not condone violence, and anyone found wanting must be prosecuted regardless of their affiliation,” Mwanza added.