The 20-year jail sentence for independent radio station owner Mam Sonando made headlines around the world yesterday, but coverage of Mr. Sonando’s case was markedly different in local Khmer-language media, particularly national TV where not a mention was made.
While the three major Khmer-language daily newspapers—Rasmei Kampuchea, Koh Santepheap, and Kampuchea Thmey Daily—ran front page stories on the sentencing, only one, Rasmei Kampuchea, quoted sources critical of the sentence.
Neither Koh Santepheap nor Kampuchea Thmey Daily mentioned any of the criticisms by national and international human rights groups. Kampuchea Thmey Daily took a more editorialized approach in its description of the so-called anti-government “secessionist” group that Mr. Sonando is supposed to have lead with co-defendant Bun Ratha, who received a 30-year jail term in absentia and remains at large.
“Bun Ratha’s group violently oppressed the villagers who didn’t join his group…. Bun Ratha’s group prevented development projects of the authority and caused infrastructures such as schools to close,” their front-page article read.
In contrast, Rasmei Kampuchea quoted the U.S. Embassy, Mr. Sonando’s lawyer Sok Sam Oeun and the Cambodian Center for Human Right’s Ou Virak, who all condemned the verdict.
Xinhua, China’s state news service, said Mr. Sonando had “masterminded a plot to establish an autonomous region in eastern Kratie province in May.” It described a “clash between the government forces and illegal land holders.”
That “clash” involved a massive police and military operation in May to evict hundreds of villagers in a dispute with a rubber plantation, during which the only fatality was a 14-year-old girl who was shot dead by soldiers or police.
While international news outlets ran stories that questioned the legitimacy of the verdict— “Another critic is silenced in Cambodia,” The New York Times; “Supporters cry foul as veteran Cambodian rights activist gets 20 years,” Reuters; “Donors urged to confront Cambodian abuses,” The Age—local television stations seemed to ignore the case altogether yesterday.
The five o’clock news on Bayon TV led with a story about Prime Minister Hun Sen meeting with officials from the United Arab Emirates to discuss trade relations, followed by stories about microfinance and a lengthy story about Mr. Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana—who owns the Bayon station—giving charity to the poor.
The top news on the “24-hour news” channel CNC focused on Cambodian maids returning from Malaysia, while TV5 ran a piece about Mr. Hun Sen’s son, Hun Mani, presiding over a sporting event in Phnom Penh.
CTN’s lead story was about stormy weather coming from the South China Sea and lengthy footage about flooding around Russian Market in Phnom Penh. TVK’s lead report was on Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema handing out awards to outstanding school students.
The only mention of Mr. Sonando yesterday came from the mouth of Keo Remy, spokesman for the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, who held a press conference to defend Mr. Hun Sen against criticism. Footage of the press conference was shown by several local television stations.
Referring briefly to the Sonando case, Mr. Remy said secession was a political issue, and what was dangerous about it was the idea, not weapons.
But some members of the public appear to be losing patience with what they see as biased pro-government reporting, said Moeun Tola of the Cambodian Legal Education Center.
Mr. Tola said he was outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday where he saw supporters of Mr. Sonando hurling abuse at television camera crews from CNC and Apsara TV.
“CNC was filming the protests and the villagers tried to chase the reporters away, accusing them of making false reports. The villagers said the reporters had political bias,” Mr. Tola said.
“I felt scared because when they saw the cameraman they ran across the police line and shouted at the reporters…. It happened again with Apsara TV,” he said.