Cambodia’s Ministry of Information on Thursday rejected suggestions that it is targeting Radio Free Asia and Voice of America following its decision to suspend the operations of several independent radio stations that relayed news content from the two U.S. media outlets deemed critical of the government.
On Wednesday, the ministry ordered radio stations Women’s Media Center of Cambodia (WMC) and Moha Nokor—both of which leased airtime to RFA and VOA—to suspend operations for violating terms of their license agreements.
WMC 102FM was told it had violated its 2006 agreement by airing news from RFA and VOA for more than 30 minutes each, prompting the station to end relays of the broadcasts, while Moha Nokor 93.5FM—which also aired programs by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—was ordered to terminate its operations for airing “outside programs without requesting authorization.”
Speaking at a press conference in the capital Phnom Penh on Thursday, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith told reporters that the ministry’s decision to suspend the two radio stations had nothing to do with the U.S. media outlets.
“Don’t twist my words, the Ministry of Information has not shut RFA and VOA—I want to be clear on this point,” he said.
“There have been some rumors that the ministry will block these two broadcasters [from establishing radio stations in Cambodia]. I am waiting to hear their proposals so that I can decide whether they can do so.”
In the meantime, he said, RFA and VOA are free to lease air time from another radio station.
Khieu Kanharith emphasized that the decision against WMC and Moha Nokor was “not politically motivated” and purely based on law, adding that any other radio stations that violate their agreements with the ministry will also face legal action.
Several other local radio stations in various provinces that lease airtime to VOA and RFA have also reported receiving warnings of violating their agreements with the ministry.
Kampong Cham radio
Also on Thursday, the Ministry of Information closed radio station Kampong Cham 99.7FM—which relays programs by RFA, VOA, and online Cambodian news site Voice of Democracy—citing its “violation of the ministry’s announcement regarding business matters.”
Kampong Cham radio owner Than Sorith told RFA’s Khmer Service he was saddened by the decision and suggested the move was political, rather than legal, in nature.
“This measure will only affect listeners and radio staffers,” he said.
The move prompted villagers in Kampong Cham province, where the station’s signal was most accessible, to demand that the government reopen the station, saying it provided essential education for the public on social, political, legal, agricultural, and human rights issues through its relay programming.
One resident, who spoke to RFA’s Khmer Service on condition of anonymity, said that closing Kampong Cham radio would negatively affect people living in rural areas who lack access to the internet, and called the move part of the government’s “strategy to put further pressure on freedom.”
Kampong Cham radio was also accessible in remote areas including within Tboung Khmum and Kampong Thom provinces.
Neang Sovath, a staffer with local rights group ADHOC who was regularly invited to Kampong Cham radio as a guest speaker, said the closure would “negatively impact the knowledge of the people.”
The attack on 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.
On Tuesday, 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 over the weekend that the paper was fast approaching a Sept. 4 deadline to pay the debt or face foreclosure.
Observers say the crackdown highlights concerns over the country’s political atmosphere and the narrowing of freedom of expression in the lead up to general elections set for July next year.
Reported by Sereyvuth Oung and Sokheng Saut for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.