Health officials in Phnom Penh have impounded an ambulance belonging to the popular ABC radio station, saying the vehicle had neither the proper registration nor necessary medical personnel, and was instead being used to peddle guava juice.
Sok Sokun, director of the municipal health department, said on Friday that officials were also planning to sue the station’s outspoken owner, Seng Bunveng, for referring to department staff as “beasts” in the wake of the ambulance seizure.
ABC claims the ambulance is used for humanitarian purposes.
The episode is just the latest controversy surrounding Mr. Bunveng, a media mogul who founded ABC in 2008 and who on the eve of the 2013 national election warned that “blood will flow” if the opposition CNRP assumed power.
City health officials stopped the ambulance near the Prampi Makara overpass in Tuol Kok district on Thursday morning, suspicious that it was operating illegally, according to Mr. Sokun.
“We found that it’s an unregistered ambulance and that it did not have permission from the Ministry of Health [to operate], contravening ministry guidelines and health standards,” he said.
Mr. Sokun said the vehicle had racked up a litany of violations.
“The vehicle doesn’t have licence plates and that’s against the Land Traffic Law,” he said. “There’s no medical team or technical expertise for emergency rescue and the vehicle is not equipped with sensors, medical supplies or medicine.”
“Inside the vehicle, there is just rusty metal and spider webs, totally contravening the Ministry of Health’s guidelines,” he added.
When officials pulled the ambulance over on Thursday, they found 128 boxes of guava juice as well as four ABC employees—including a 10-year-old boy—who had been hired to transport the product, Mr. Sokun said, adding that the radio station also appeared to have violated child labor laws.
A post on the health department’s Facebook page said ABC had been using the ambulance to unlawfully “transport health products to sell to retailers and customers.”
Mr. Sokun said the department was preparing to file a civil lawsuit against Mr. Bunveng, who goes by the nickname Aja A, over the various offenses, as well as a radio broadcast in which he said that the department had no authority to stop the ambulance.
“I had the right to confiscate the vehicle and prepare a case for court,” he said. “Aja A used ABC radio to insult my officials by calling them ‘beasts’ for stopping and seizing the unregistered ambulance.”
Mr. Sokun said he would abandon the lawsuit only if Mr. Bunveng issued both a written apology and a verbal one—broadcast nationwide.
Mr. Bunveng could not be reached for comment. An ABC employee who declined to give her name or position, saying she was not authorized to speak to the media, said the station would not attempt to reclaim the impounded ambulance.
However, the station defended its use of the ambulance in a post on its Facebook page, claiming that the vehicle had been donated by tycoon Ly Ratana and his wife.
“You said we used the ambulance illegally,” the post said, addressing the health department, “but why didn’t you forbid the vehicle from operating when we transported rice, food and medicine to help people suffering from floods in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Pailin provinces, and transported food to the military along the border?”
“This vehicle is not only used for transporting bodies, but for everything,” it said, adding that the department should have consulted the station rather than seizing the ambulance.
A quarter of Cambodians listen to ABC, according to the website Who Owns The Media, launched in December by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media and Reporters Without Borders. The site says that based on audience share, Mr. Bunveng is the fourth largest media owner in the country.
ABC has a flair for theatrics and routinely intervenes in listeners’ lives. Acting on a tip from a listener last month, the station took temporary custody of a 10-year-old girl who had been physically abused by her great-aunt.
The ambulance seizure is not the first time Mr. Bunveng has courted controversy.
On the eve of the July 2013 national elections, he took to the airwaves to warn that the military would stage a coup if the opposition CNRP won the vote, earning a rebuke from the National Election Committee. “Blood will flow through the streets,” he said at the time.
And that October, he urged university students to call in to the station and report professors who had made comments critical of the government.
(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour)