"This is a pre-determined political move to silence us," Gerald Shawa, Prime Television’s boss, told RFI. "Our stories were balanced and very factual," he added.
Zambia’s broadcast regulator said the suspension was due to “unbalanced coverage, opinionated news, material likely to incite violence and use of derogatory language,” according to a statement from the IBA.
The suspension of the channel’s license followed a complaint by the ruling Patriotic Front party of President Edgar Lungu. The PF party said Prime Television’s reporting was “biased” and “unethical”, according to a letter dated 11 February and shared online.
Prime Television’s coverage was described as “propaganda disguised as news” by the PF party. However, the station’s owner disputed the ruling party’s assessment of Prime Television’s news coverage.
Shawa said their reporting was based on interviews with members of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) party who made accusations against PF supporters and the police.
Furthermore, the television station made “frantic efforts to meet and resolve all the misunderstandings" and offered the PF party the right to reply, according to Shawa.
The report in question was broadcast on 9 February and concerned a UPND party rally near Sesheke in Zambia’s Western Province. The UPND alleged that party leader Hakainde Hichilema’s life was in danger with armed police and PF supporters chasing him into the forest for several hours.
Prime Television’s evening news programme covered the events in detail with a long segment showing footage of the rally and police dispersing opposition supporters with gunfire and teargas. It was not entirely clear why security forces decided to intervene.
The UPND party accused the security forces of using live rounds, although in footage reviewed by RFI the lack of muzzle flashes from automatic weapons fired by police seems to suggest that blank rounds were used.
Prime Television did carry both the accusations by the opposition party and the response by police officials who denied that live rounds were used.
Zambia’s broadcast regulator said that Prime Television had breached broadcast guidelines and ordered the station to carry out “in-house training on basic journalism”.
Shawa said he was “surprised” by the IBA’s criticism of his journalists’ skills, pointing to reporters with years of experience and awards the station had won.
The station owner said the regulator could have found “a remedy to resolve this matter” without having to resort to suspension of the channel’s license.
Nevertheless, he said the station would comply with the IBA’s decision.
"They were given instructions to fix us or to punish us," said Shawa in a telephone interview. “I think this came from the top, not from the IBA itself – these were instructions they were given," he added, suggesting that the ruling party convinced the regulator to take such action.
Rights groups Amnesty International criticised the decision by the Zambian regulator, describing it as an attempt to undermine freedom of expression and media freedom.
“The suspension of Prime TV is a ploy to muzzle independent voices in Zambia,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa.
“It is clearly intended to send a chilling message that journalists need to self-censor or face dire consequences,” said Muchena.