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South African community radio station silenced by fire

Station manager Dika Kheswa in the former on-air studio of Karabo FM
Station manager Dika Kheswa in the former on-air studio of Karabo FM

Wits Radio Academy/Facebook

An arson attack that destroyed a community radio station in South Africa is a disturbing sign of the vulnerability of freedom of expression at the local level, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

"Community media are often closest to some of the most contentious stories and offer a vital space for discussion and debate, which must be protected and respected," said CPJ's Africa Program Coordinator, Sue Valentine. "We call on all political and community leaders to encourage their members to respect freedom of expression and the independence of the media, and urge police to investigate the attack and prosecute all those responsible."

Two masked gunmen entered the offices of Karabo FM in the city of Sasolburg on Saturday night, according to Sam Mkhwanazi, chairman of the station's board. Mkhwanazi said one of the gunmen ordered the host to switch off his microphone and leave the station with his two on-air guests. The other assailant poured gasoline over the premises and started the fire.

No one was injured in the attack, but the station's equipment, which was not insured, was completely destroyed, Mkhwanazi said. Karabo FM is off the air.

Mkhwanazi told CPJ that police were at the station on Monday to collect further evidence and were investigating the attack. He said the station was going to convene a community meeting on Thursday to appeal to the community to help find the culprits.

Karabo FM is situated in the densely populated township of Zamdela outside Sasolburg, home of the giant synthetic fuel and chemical producer Sasol. The station plays an important role in the flow of information and discussion among local residents. Mkhwanazi told CPJ that the community station was the first place residents turned to in case of an emergency.

In recent months, the station has covered both sides of an ongoing dispute between a government proposal to merge two municipalities and the residents who oppose the move. At least four people have died during a series of violent protests in January, according to news reports.

Mkhwanazi told CPJ the station's board of directors met on Monday to discuss the future of the station. "We don't know the motive behind this attack, but we are clear that we need to rebuild and restore the station. That will be a long-term process," he said.

Karabo FM is part of a community station mentoring program run by the University of the Witwatersrand's (Wits) Radio Academy. The program works with selected stations to help strengthen management systems, broadcast policies, and programming, which are vital to keeping community stations viable.

"Karabo has worked hard to maintain an independent profile in an extremely difficult environment," Franz Kruger, head of the Wits Radio Academy, told CPJ. "This is probably the most brutal attack on community radio that I'm aware of in South Africa, and it's a reflection of the intolerance of media freedom at local level."

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