Independent radio producers, managers and listeners said they were angry and confused on Sunday after an Information Ministry crackdown on at least 19 radio stations last week cut off access to programming for millions of potential listeners.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith last week denied any political motives in the closures, claiming the stations had violated their contracts with the government by overselling programming to outlets like the Voice of Democracy (VOD) as well as U.S.-funded Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA).
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan seemed to suggest otherwise on Sunday, branding VOD director Pa Nguon Teang a “foreign agent” for accepting foreign donations and joining the ad hoc election monitoring group the Situation Room.
The ministry issued letters to eight radio station owners on Monday ordering their collective 16 stations to close immediately for violating contracts, according to the ministry website, several weeks after The Cambodia Daily was hit with a $6.3 million tax bill its publishers dispute and allege to be politically-motivated.
VOD said on Friday that it had been effectively booted from all of the stations that broadcast its programming last week by station owners in what Mr. Nguon Teang said was a move meant to quiet the airwaves ahead of next year’s election.
The news service, as well as VOA and RFA, can still be accessed online.
Managers from at least three more stations, all of which broadcast RFA—Kiri Dang Rek in Oddar Meanchey province, Klang Moeung Radio in Battambang province and Angkor Ratha in Siem Reap province—also said on Sunday they had been ordered off the air on Wednesday and Thursday, though none were clear on the reasons.
“My boss told me that we need to shut down, but I have no idea why and when we will broadcast again,” Ben Samneang, a station manager at Kiri Dang Rek, said.
Ministry officials including Mr. Kanharith could not be reached, but Mr. Siphan, who has regularly accused RFA and VOA of inciting anti-government sentiment from overseas, on Sunday extended the claim to VOD.
Mr. Nguon Teang, who also heads the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, estimated that VOD had lost access to 7.7 million potential listeners when its programming was shut down. He also denied Mr. Siphan’s accusation of being a pawn for foreign donors.
“I feel worried about my safety but I think my work is more important for my country and people,” he wrote in a message.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said on Sunday that Beehive Radio in Phnom Penh was the sole remaining outlet still broadcasting the party’s programming—produced in the capital by a staff of five—after five other stations had either folded or refused its programming, losing a possible listener base of up to 10 million people.
The shutdowns meant that next year’s elections will “not [be] free or fair and the truth in society cannot be revealed,” he said, adding that the CPP enjoyed a near-monopoly on TV and now radio. “It’s not free when my competitor can do everything…. But for us now, it’s very quiet.”
Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, among others, have issued statements warning of a deterioration in Cambodia’s media climate.
Chhem Khoeurn, manager of Klang Moeung radio station, said listeners had been calling frequently asking why the station had gone off the air.
“People keep ringing us, asking, ‘Why is there no RFA? What is the reason? Why can’t we hear it?’” he said, adding that he only knew that the ministry had ordered them closed.
Duk Visal, a vendor and avid listener of the RFA, VOA and VOD broadcasts on the now-shuttered Kampong Cham radio, said he had begun listening to VOA in the early 1980s, when authorities could arrest him for listening.
“Now it’s gone,” he said. “I am so frustrated.”
The outlets offered an objective alternative to the state programming that dominated TV, he said. “Whenever I turn on the TV, I see only those protocol news like this minister going to do a monk offering…[or] this official planting a tree here and there, but they don’t broadcast about that official cutting the trees or getting involved with illegal logging business.”
Mr. Visal said he would miss calling into talk shows like VOA’s Hello VOA and RFA’s Listener Forum to ask questions of spokesmen like Mr. Siphan.
“These radio outlets are the most reliable sources I turn to.”