PHNOM PENH—An independent radio station that gave airtime to Cambodia’s political opposition has been prevented from broadcasting ahead of the country’s general election in July.
“We see a lot of people, including police, waiting outside the perimeter fence who came to read a letter suspending the broadcasts of our radio station,” staff member Kim Somaly said, describing the atmosphere among staff members as “shocked.”
The station is headquartered in the northern city of Siem Reap but began broadcasting from the northeastern rural town of Kratie on May 15. It rebroadcast programming for Radio Voice of Democracy, produced by the Phnom Penh-based non-government Cambodian Center for Independent Media.
But it was closed after the Ministry of Information issued an announcement terminating its broadcasting license on May 29.
A lone voice
Vann Samnang, representative of the Norodom Ranariddh Party in Kratie, said the radio was alone in informing listeners about the political platforms of opposition parties, whose number has been slashed from 23 to 11 since the general election of 2003.
"It benefited the people. It raised people’s awareness, and helped them to realize their right to vote. And it’s also about people’s day-to-day lives."
He called on the government to reinstate the broadcaster’s license. “We don’t know what radio station we can go to besides Angkor Ratha radio station. We want the radio station to resume broadcasts,” he said.
“The closure has shocked people, because this means the government can close down even an entire radio station as they wish,” Vann Samnang said. “Everything else will be up to the ruling party now, too.”
“According to my knowledge, many people are concerned about this and are requesting that Angkor Ratha radio resume its usual broadcasts.”
Station showed ‘disrespect’
Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the station had showed “disrepect” for the ministry in opening its Kratie branch without seeking a new license.
“In the license we issued, we told him that if he sells broadcast hours he must come to obtain permission from the Ministry of Information,” Khieu Kanharith said, in an apparent reference to the station’s rebroadcasting agreements.
“There is no need for this radio to exist as we already permitted him to have one station in Siem Reap. [The owner] shows disrespect for the ministry by saying he doesn't need to request further permission,” he said.
But residents appeared to back up Vann Samnang’s call, voicing concerns about the lack of balanced media coverage and its effect on the democratic process.
“Restrictions on freedom of the press are not good for a democratic society because in a democratic society, the press must reflect the whole of society,” a teacher from Preah Kosomak High School said.
“To develop the nation, there must be constructive criticism. The government is violating freedom of the press by shutting down Angkor Rathar Radio...just because it broadcast about other political parties,” he said, adding that he also listened to indepedent broadcaster Beehive Radio.
Former listeners said the radio’s programs dealt with seldom-reported issues such as land grabs and their legality, which they said were crucial if ordinary people were to understand their rights.
A resident of Sre Sbov village, Sambo district, said the radio had poor reception, but that he was sorry that the station had been closed.
“It benefited the people. It raised people’s awareness, and helped them to realize their right to vote. And it’s also about people’s day-to-day lives,” he said.
A spokesman for the Kbal Damrey Commune said he had enjoyed listening to the station’s call-in show, adding that local people regretted the closure. He called for the station’s reinstatement.
“People said that they want to hear the voices of both sides. So please re-open the radio station,” he added.
Cambodian rights activists say the country’s media has an inherent political bias, with all television stations and most radio stations owned by people close to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Rights groups raise concerns
A recent report by Licadho, a human rights organization, said Cambodia’s broadcasters relied heavily on their media outlets to win political advantage with the ruling elite.
The head of the Cambodian Committee for Free and Fair Elections has said the country hadn't yet achieved international standards for free and fair elections.
In a related matter, New York-based Human Rights Watch on May 23 called on the Cambodian government to lift what it called a “shameless” ban on copies of the Burma Daily, a new English-language insert in the Cambodia Daily newspaper.
The Burma Daily was launched May 16 as an insert in the Cambodia Daily and carried mainly wire service reports about Burma and Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Burma on May 2-3.
With the publication of its second edition on May 19, the Cambodian Ministry of Information illegally ordered police to remove copies of the Burma Daily from newsstands.
On May 21, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith threatened to file a legal complaint against the Cambodia Daily for launching the Burma Daily without obtaining government permission.
Cambodia’s 1995 Press Law requires new publications to submit names and addresses of their editor and printing house to the Ministry of Information and authorizes the government to ban, suspend, or confiscate publications deemed to violate “national security and political stability.”
Original reporting by Sam Borin, Or Phearith, and Mayarith for RFA’s Khmer service. Director: Kem Sos. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.