Riot police in the Cambodian capital on Monday violently dispersed more than 100 people demanding a television license for independent Beehive Radio, injuring eight people and arresting two, the station’s director said.
Two of the injured protesters suffered severe wounds—one to the head and the other to the eye—after they were beaten by scores of police wielding electric batons and clubs during the demonstration against the Ministry of Information in Phnom Penh, station director and government critic Mam Sonando told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Sonando led Monday’s protest against the government’s repeated refusal to grant Beehive a television broadcast license and increase the radio station’s signal, claiming there is no frequency available.
The group had not received permission to hold the protest, which followed an earlier one that was also violently dispersed by police in January.
Cambodia has been accused of only granting television licenses to media that favors the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for decades. If given a license, Beehive’s station would become the Southeast Asian nation's first opposition television channel.
Mam Sonando called Monday’s crackdown an attempt to “shut people up,” adding that Cambodia is “ruled by dictators.”
“The Ministry of Information has abused the law, so how can they resolve this?” he asked. “The only way is to crack down on protesters.”
“We can do nothing but express our views for the international community to see,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, a senior official with Cambodian rights group Licadho, told RFA that the authorities had used “very excessive force” to crack down on the demonstrators.
“By law, if the demonstration is peaceful, the government must protect it,” he said.
Agence France-Presse quoted local rights group ADHOC as condemning the crackdown in a statement as a violation of human rights.
“Mam Sonando is demanding a TV license to counter the government's monopoly on televised media and greater reach for his radio station,” the statement said.
“A free and independent press is vital in a democracy; however the Cambodian government looks determined to keep a tight reign over access to information,” it added.
City Hall spokesman Long Dymong confirmed to RFA that authorities had arrested two people but later released them.
“We detained them for their own education,” he said.
“They didn't want to express their views—they were inciting violence.”
Long Dymong accused the protestors of “looking down” at the authorities.
AFP quoted military police spokesman Kheng Tito as defending the crackdown, saying authorities carried out their duty within the law to “maintain security and public order” because the group had not been given permission to demonstrate.
Mam Sonando, who has dual Cambodian-French citizenship, was convicted in October 2012 for alleged involvement in a secession plot, but last March a court reversed the decision and released him from prison.
In June, the activist told RFA that his radio station risked closure following government restrictions and a refusal to allow the station to expand its broadcast range.
He said that the Ministry of Information was restricting overseas groups from buying airtime at the Phnom Penh-based Beehive and had turned down requests to set up relay stations to beam to the provinces.
Mam Sonando maintains that millions of listeners in the villages want to listen to his radio broadcasts and has expressed concern his station may be forced to close down due to funding problems.
In late January, Cambodian police used electric batons and smoke bombs to disperse Beehive Radio supporters, injuring at least eight people, after hundreds of protesters marched through police barricades on the streets of Phnom Penh in defiance of a ban on public gatherings.
Authorities have quelled recent street protests against Hun Sen, whose government ended a ban on public demonstrations in the capital last month, though organizers must still request permission from local authorities to hold protests in public places.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy led hundreds of supporters in a march through the capital and a meeting at his party’s headquarters on Sunday, abandoning plans to defy a separate government ban on rallies in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.
It was the CNRP’s first public rally since early January when security forces violently dispelled opposition supporters from Freedom Park, where they had called for Hun Sen’s resignation and a reelection of disputed July 28 polls that saw his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) named the victor by the country’s government-appointed electoral body.
Authorities told the CNRP last week that the park is off-limits for gatherings while authorities investigate violence linked to the early January crackdown.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.