Two masked gunmen destroyed a South African community radio station in an arson attack on the night of Sept. 10. The two assailants entered the offices during a show, stole the host’s and guests’ mobile phones, and forced all of the occupants out of the building before they doused it in gasoline and lit it on fire. The occupants were uninjured, but equipment damage brought Karabo FM’s broadcasting to a halt.
Three days after the attack, the radio station published a press release starting, “Burnt to ashes but still on track.” Karabo FM station manager Dika Kheswa said: “The equipment is burnt, but not Karabo FM. We will do everything in our power to rebuild Karabo FM.”
With nearly 73,000 listeners, Karabo FM is a community radio station based in Zamdela, a township outside of Sasolburg, home of the giant synthetic fuel and chemical producer Sasol. The station covers local conflicts and provides a community-based forum for discussion among local residents.
The station has been providing coverage of both sides of a violent dispute that began in January when the government proposed a merger of Zamdela’s upper middle class Metsimaholo municipality with Parys’ lower class Ngwathe municipality. Outraged at the government for not consulting them on the merger, Zamdela residents took to the streets.
Protests from both sides over the merger left four dead, several injured, and many buildings and cars destroyed.
Khewsa condemned the attack on the radio station. “People must understand the roles and responsibilities of community radio stations, and not take out their anger on community entities,” she said. “This not only a loss to the management, staff and the board but to the whole community in and around Metsimaholo.”
Sue Valentine, the Committee to Protect Journalists Africa program coordinator assisted Khewsa in urging citizens who have any information to come forward and help the investigation.
"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,” Valentine said.
Not-for-profit community-based radio stations began appearing in South Africa in the 1990’s when the African National Congress passed the Independent Broadcast Authority Act to foster public forum and a democratic free press. The radio stations receive two- and four-year temporary licenses and rely on charitable funding from community organizations, universities, and themselves.
Although the press as a whole in South Africa is largely self-regulating, the government offers incentives and advertising fund to supportive media outlets. In fact, the African National Congress is currently discussing a secrecy bill that could serve journalists publishing official information with as many as 25 years in prison.
Physical violence against journalists in South Africa has occurred in the past with the presence of violent entities within the African National Congress Youth league and rebel groups.