Court returns opposition radio station to ousted owner


2004.03.01
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Pro-democracy programming is back on air

PHNOM PENH�A Cambodian court has ordered the return of an opposition-backed radio station to its ousted director, three weeks after another judge on the same court ordered a new owner to take control, RFA�s Khmer service reports.

An order signed by Judge Hing Thirith of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court directed �all conflicting parties who have ownership disputes over the radio station and land of FM-90mhz to operate as before� pending a final judgment in the matter.

The four-page decision, handed down Feb. 26, effectively restored all of FM-90�s pro-democracy programming to the airwaves and returned the station�s staff to their jobs.

Police suspected Keo Sophea had plans to burn down the FM90-mhz building when they enforced the radio station's hand over Feb. 26. Circumstances surrounding the Feb. 12 ouster of Nhem Sophanna as station director, as well as the longer-term fate of FM-90mhz, remain unclear. But the restoration of FM-90mhz Nhem Sophanna was dramatic. A phalanx of 50 armed police officers broke into the radio station late Thursday after the interim director, Keo Sophea, locked the doors and refused to vacate the premises. Police found her with two containers of gasoline, witnesses said, which she was apparently planning to use to set fire to the building.

Late Friday, Phnom Penh police arrested Keo Sophea in connection with an outstanding warrant dated Dec. 22, 2003, for alleged financial fraud. She was freed on bail the following day. No date has been set for her next appearance in court.

Cambodian human rights activist Kem Sokha, who hosts the station�s public affairs programs, welcomed the move. "I am very pleased my center [the Cambodian Center for Human Rights] is able to continue my program for our people to listen to," Kem Sokha told RFA.

Two firetrucks were on the scene Feb. 26 to protect against any hostile activity from within the FM90-mhz building. Kem Sokha's programs, sponsored by the U.S.-based nonprofit International Republican Institute (IRI), address civic issues in Cambodia through interviews and panel discussions�and often include criticism of the government. They are also broadcast on Phnom Penh-based Beehive Radio.

IRI country director Jackson Cox also welcomed the decision.

"I am very happy that the 'Voice of Democracy' program is now back on the air. Their program is not only extremely popular across the country, but it is very effective. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights is talking with people and strengthening democracy in Cambodia," Cox said.

On Feb. 12, another judge on the Phnom Penh Municipal Court transferred ownership of the radio station to Keo Sophea, widow of former FM90-mhz director Chhim Vansithong, as part of a property dispute. Details of the property dispute and how it involves the radio station remain unclear.

FM90-mhz is backed by royalist FUNCINPEC Party, which opposes the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

A spokesman for Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) declined to comment on the matter, saying it would be decided in court. "It is not a political matter," Khieu Kanharith told RFA after the original handover of the station to Keo Sophea. #####

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