Abuja, May 9, 2022 — Liberian authorities should investigate the recent fire at Radio Kintoma FM to determine if it was an arson attack and make the findings public, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.
At about 4 a.m. on April 23, neighbors of the Radio Kintoma’s station office in Voinjama, the capital of Liberia’s northern Lofa county, informed station manager Tokpa Tarnue that the building was on fire, according to Tarnue, who spoke with CPJ by phone and messaging app, and a report by the privately owned news website The Independent Probe. The fire destroyed the offices and everything inside, according to those sources.
Tarnue told CPJ that Radio Kintoma had not received any direct threats. Still, he and his employees believe that the fire was arson either in response to a recent broadcast dispute between their staff and supporters of a local politician, or their reporting on the controversial topic of female genital mutilation.
The station relies significantly on solar power and the electric generator was turned off, so the station did not have power when the fire began, Tarnue told CPJ, leading him to believe the fire was not an accident. A statement by the Press Union of Liberia, a local trade group, referred to the fire as an “arson attack” and called for an investigation.
“Liberian authorities should conduct a swift and comprehensive investigation into the April 23 fire at Radio Kintoma’s offices,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, from New York. “When a media outlet is destroyed under murky circumstances, it sends a chilling message. That is why it is important to ascertain what caused the fire and make those findings public.”
Tarnue said the station made a verbal complaint to police who opened an investigation, but that he had not received an update as of May 4. Clement Barletta, the head of the Lofa County Police, told CPJ by phone that his office is working with county authorities and the radio station to determine the cause of the fire, adding that he cannot give further details on the ongoing investigation.
The items destroyed in the fire included one FM transmitter, two mixing boards, seven microphones, three desktop computers, three laptop computers, four CD players, two smartphones, one air conditioner, three portable printers, four digital voice recorders, the station’s documents, and personal belongings of the staff.
On April 17, six days before the fire, the station aired a report on the dangers of female genital mutilation, a practice promoted by some of Liberia’s traditional community leaders, and discussed the issue on programs over the days that followed, according to Tarnue. The reporting renewed campaigns against the practice across Voinjama, Tarnue said.
On April 20, the station received a visit from Balla Gbotolu, the traditional head of the Voinjama district known as the paramount chief, who demanded that Radio Kintoma stop any further discussion of female genital mutilation, according to Tarnue.
Gbotolu told CPJ by phone that he had no information about the cause of the fire, adding that his office was working to raise funds to help the radio station after the incident.
Separately on April 20, two supporters of a local politician argued with the station’s program manager after he prevented them from hosting an unmoderated, on-air program, Tarnue told CPJ. The supporters had paid to participate in the program but wanted to take over hosting and speak freely on-air without any contribution from the radio station.
CPJ called Liberian National police spokesperson Moses Carter for comment, but the call did not connect.