Five of nearly 20 independent Cambodian radio stations shuttered last week after airing programs critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government appealed to the Ministry of Information on Monday for permission to reopen, pledging to follow the terms of their licensing agreements.
The ministry has closed all radio stations airing programming by Radio Free Asia and Voice of America since last week, leaving listeners only online streaming or shortwave radio access to the U.S.-funded broadcasters, as an alternative to stations aligned with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Owners of five of the now-shuttered stations—Kampong Cham, Angkor Ratha, Samleng Kaun Khmer, Moha Nokor, and Stung Khieu—sent a letter to the ministry Monday requesting a meeting to discuss the reinstatement of their licenses and vowing to honor their contracts.
The Ministry of Information had cited violations including airing “outside programs without requesting authorization” as among the reasons it had shut down the stations.
Kampong Cham radio station owner Than Sorith told RFA’s Khmer Service that he believes the order was politically motivated, rather than a response to breach of contract, adding that the stations were targeted for airing content critical of the government by RFA and VOA, as well as by online Cambodian news site Voice of Democracy (VOD), and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“If the ministry allows us back on the air again but doesn’t allow us to lease our airtime to independent media outlets like RFA, VOA, or VOD, they will have to give us reasonable explanation—otherwise it won’t be acceptable,” he said.
“If conditions are set that restrict our freedom to air those programs, we will have to think about [whether we want to reopen].”
In the meantime, Than Sorith said, the closure of his station has deprived his listeners of access to balanced news reporting and left him unable to pay his staff.
Ministry of Information spokesperson Ouk Kimseng told RFA he was unwilling to comment on the request from the station owners until he had received their letter, but said they will be invited to discuss any decision the ministry makes.
“I wish to reiterate that all radio station owners are encouraged to hold talks with the ministry to address this issue—we can work on this together,” he said.
“I am not going to say anything about the contracts [between the ministry and the station owners], other than that they are legally binding. When you sign them, you agree to respect them. If you fail to respect them you will be dealt with accordingly.”
Phnom Penh-based Beehive Radio and Women’s Media Center (WMC) are the only stations still airing content by RFA and VOA. The two stations were forced by the ministry to reduce the amount of airtime they leased to the broadcasters to half an hour each.
The attack on the radio stations comes amid a larger crackdown prompted by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recommendation at an Aug. 5 cabinet meeting that government agencies investigate alleged back taxes owed by media outlets and civil society organizations.
Last week, Hun Sen vowed to shut down English-language newspaper the Cambodia Daily if it does not pay U.S. $6.3 million in back taxes and interest, prompting the paper’s owner to call for an investigation into the charges.
Kong Vibol, director of the ministry’s General Department of Taxation, noted recently that the paper was fast approaching a Sept. 4 deadline to pay the debt or face foreclosure.
On Monday, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists Pen Bonnar told RFA that the government’s actions against media outlets for failing to follow their contracts or pay back taxes were carried out according to Cambodian law, and dismissed suggestions they were politically motivated.
“In the U.S. or Europe, if an establishment fails to pay tax to the state, do you think the state wouldn’t act against it?” he asked.
“In the case of the Cambodia Daily, if they had paid all their tax debts and had been closed, it would be a different story. But they have failed to pay their taxes. What else should the state do?”
Last week, the United Nations’ human rights agency, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, and several U.S. congressmen criticized Cambodia’s government in statements decrying the country’s increasingly restrictive political atmosphere and what they called a narrowing of freedom of expression in the lead up to elections next year.
Hun Sen’s ruling party won June’s commune elections, but the CNRP received nearly 44 percent of all votes to the CPP’s 51 percent, in an outcome that many see as a bellwether for next year’s ballot.
Reported by Sothearin Yeang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.