At least one more radio station went off the air on Thursday after its license was revoked, as Information Minister Khieu Kanharith denied the moves were targeting outlets hosting U.S.-funded Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA).
At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Kanharith claimed that the ministry was merely conducting a long-overdue check-up on radio stations and denied rights groups’ claims that independent media were reeling from government pressure.
“I would like to inform that recently the ministry has shut down some radio stations because they have violated their contract,” he said, declining to name or count the stations involved. “But it is not because they are broadcasting RFA and VOA at all, [but] because in the contract the owner of the station already stated that every time that anyone rents their airtime, they are required to ask permission from the ministry, and some radios did not follow it.”
The ministry ordered Kampong Cham Radio FM 99.7 off the air on Thursday, a day after it made a similar move against Mohanokor Radio. Both stations carry programming from VOA and RFA, as well as the CNRP, and have owners connected to the opposition party.
The independent Voice of Democracy was also forced off air in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, but was available at stations in the provinces “at the moment” according to its director, Pa Nguon Teang.
Mr. Kanharith said VOA and RFA needed to issue a correction on what he said was their mistaken belief that politics was at play.
“Please, RFA and VOA make your correction, and avoid interpreting it as a political crackdown,” he said. “I am looking forward to hearing their response and stance so that I can decide whether or not to open or shut down their office here.”
The Finance Ministry has also accused VOA and RFA of shirking tax responsibilities after leveling a disputed $6.3 million bill on The Cambodia Daily that threatens to shutter the newspaper on September 4.
Rohit Mahajan, a spokesman for RFA, said the station was cooperating with authorities on tax issues and was working to register with the ministry. A VOA spokesman declined immediate comment.
Hay Makara, manager of Kampong Cham Radio, said he had submitted the required paperwork months ago notifying the ministry of its broadcasts of RFA, VOA, VOD and CNRP content but had received no response.
“We actually submitted the letter to the ministry and asked for permission, and I knew that when we asked for permission they wouldn’t allow it,” he said. “Now I need to deal with sponsors and pay the staff’s salary.”
Mr. Kanharith also took aim at the Daily’s tax dispute, claiming that it was other unidentified foreign newspapers who pushed the government to crackdown on the Daily for alleged non-payments.
Douglas Steele, the Daily’s general manager, said the newspaper was meeting with the general tax department today to discuss the dispute, which he called “an attempt to seize a foreign investor’s assets thinly dressed up as a tax dispute.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert lumped the case with a general crackdown on civil society, including the government’s expulsion of the U.S.-funded NGO National Democratic Institute (NDI), at a news conference in Washington D.C. early on Thursday morning Cambodian time.
“We encourage the government to allow NDI, The Cambodia Daily, and other independent media and civil society organizations to continue their important activities,” she said.