Long-time Cambodian government critic Mam Sonando was given a 20-year jail sentence in October on charges widely condemned as trumped up. He was convicted of fostering a secessionist movement in a village in rural Kratie province – which he has never visited – and became the latest outspoken Cambodian to fall victim to the country’s much-criticised judiciary.
But as a critic, Sonando may have been especially worrisome for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) because of his role as the owner of the country’s most prominent independent radio station.
Shortly before charges were levelled against Sonando, his station, Beehive Radio, reported from the Hague, that a complaint had been filed against Prime Minister Hun Sen at the International Criminal Court. After the conviction, Beehive was allowed to stay on the air, but the government’s message was clear.
Radio is the medium with the biggest reach in Cambodia and has for years provided rare dissenting voices in the Khmer-language media. More than three-quarters of the population still live in the countryside, where radio is the most feasible source of information.
But the recent problems for critics go beyond the high-profile Sonando case. With national elections planned for July 2013, there is a battle going on for control of the airwaves.
Government-aligned stations dominate the majority of the radio spectrum, and much of the content is firmly non-political, the prime example being the extremely popular phone-in station ABC Radio. The station has become a substitute emergency service as citizens report crimes in lieu of a responsive police force. But real-time traffic reports trump criticism of the government on the station, which steers away from controversy.
Providing information without a pro-CPP bias, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) – both US government-backed broadcasters – are allowed to transmit through locally-owned FM stations.
But during June 2012 polls to elect the officials in charge of communes – who play a powerful role in the everyday life of Cambodians – the Ministry of Information took action to shut down these broadcasters. Those local stations transmitting VOA and RFA content were told outright not to broadcast shows produced by the two stations for the entire election weekend.
The government explained the move by saying it was necessary to eliminate foreign influence over the vote. Information Minister Khieu Kanharith later said the action would be repeated at the national elections, claiming it was justified under election law.
Election-time censorship also stretched to one of the few other stations considered independent, the civil society-backed Voice of Democracy, or VOD, which broadcasts on FM frequencies in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey province.
On the morning of the commune elections, a VOD broadcast was reporting complaints of missing names on voting lists and other irregularities at polling stations. Mid-way through, however, a call from the Information Ministry quickly put a stop to the broadcast.
Sun Narin, a news editor at VOD, said the threat of government intervention was ever-present, but did not dissuade the station from reporting the news that matters.
“We just work professionally and ethically. We criticise the government, but it’s constructive criticism,” Narin said. “The others [radio stations] have tendencies to side with the government. What we’re about is news. People don’t just want to know about if the government goes to inaugurate a bridge or something, that is not news. We do the things that are important.”
The station regularly covers corruption and land grabbing, and is not afraid to name government officials implicated in wrongdoing, he said.
Despite this independent spirit, Narin said reporters at the station do sometimes have to weigh up how important a story is, and decide whether it is worth the risk of drawing the government’s ire.
“If it’s not worth it, we take a little step back. We want to be on the radio for a long time,” he said, adding that instances of such self-censorship were rare.
As for the coming elections, Narin said VOD would do its best to give equal coverage to all parties.
“It’s not that we try to promote the opposition, but we want people to know about them,” he said, explaining that the CPP will get wall-to-wall coverage and the opposition will not get a look-in elsewhere.
Regardless of how balanced VOD’s reporting is, Narin said that, come July, he expects that the government will try to interfere once again.
A report on the June commune elections by Comfrel, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said that there are more than 100 radio stations “either owned by the government itself, by a hybrid of government and private, by members of the ruling CPP, or by tycoon allies or family members of the government and CPP”.
Comfrel said in the report that radio can be an effective tool to reach people in Cambodia, most of whom live in rural areas and have little access to TV coverage or even newspaper distribution.
However, Comfrel said, “radio access is very limited [for] the opposition parties.”
Another victim of the suppression of critical voices on the radio is Mu Sochua, a leading figure in the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
The outspoken human rights advocate turned up to Radio National Kampuchea’s (RNK) studios in November to take part in a show on women’s issues. But just minutes before the show was set to go on the air, the station’s director pulled the plug, claiming that, in the interest of balance, a ruling-party representative should also be present.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith denied that the order had come from his ministry, which directly overseas RNK.
Sochua claims the move was discriminatory, arguing that ruling-party officials regularly appear on radio, as well as TV, entirely unopposed.
“I’ve been a Member of Parliament for over five years; this time was the only time that I [would have] been able to appear on the radio except for during the election campaign,” she said.
Rights groups see a trend of suppressing free speech and freedom of information, which could render the July polls unfair long before campaigning begins.
Rupert Abbott, Asia Researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam for Amnesty International, said that the dominance of government-loyal media outlets “provides Cambodians with skewed, unbalanced information, as it tends to focus only on the positive developments and achievements in Cambodia, rather than on some of the concerns and problems”.
Especially of late, he said, the Cambodian government “is seeking to silence voices and restrict information that do not fit with its own narrative about the development of the country”.
“The ruling party may be concerned, particularly in the context of the land crisis,” he said, “that accurate information may affect its popularity and impact on its results in the next national election.”