All radio stations carrying Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) outside of Phnom Penh have been closed by the Information Ministry, spokesmen for the outlets said, as owners of the shuttered stations petitioned the ministry on Monday for a reprieve.
Phnom Penh-based Beehive Radio and Women’s Media Center are the only stations still broadcasting the U.S.-funded outlets’ content, the spokesmen said on Sunday, limiting listeners in the provinces to CPP-friendly programming, shortwave broadcasts or online streams.
“RFA is closely watching the situation as it unfolds in Cambodia with great concern,” RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan wrote in an email. “Shutting down these stations effectively closes a critical avenue for the Cambodian people to access RFA’s daily reports.”
The ministry closed at least 19 radio stations last week, saying they violated contracts with the government. The move came as several other stations dropped the independent outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) from their scheduling, forcing it to an online-only format, and several weeks after The Cambodia Daily was slapped with an unaudited $6.3 million tax bill its publishers say is politically motivated.
Five of the eight station owners affected by the move sent a letter on Monday requesting a meeting with the ministry asking it to reconsider, according to Than Sorith, owner of the now-silent Kampong Cham Radio and a member of the CNRP’s executive committee in that province. The letter asks the ministry to reinstate the stations’ licenses and promises to follow all prakas and contracts with the ministry.
The five owners were not convinced that the actions had no political motive, and were aimed at simply enforcing existing rules, as Information Minister Khieu Kanharith claimed at a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Sorith said.
“If that was so, the majority of the radio stations across the country also violate [the rules] too,” he said, arguing that only stations broadcasting RFA, VOA, VOD and opposition party programming had been targeted.
“They must give us a very specific reason. We will see if we can accept it or not. It completely depends on the reason of the ministry.”
Ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng said he had not heard of the letter but believed the ministry would review the complaints. He referred further questions to Mr. Kanharith’s comments at his news conference.
Mam Sonando, the owner of Beehive radio station, said he had avoided the fate of his colleagues because of a special license he obtained in 1998 to broadcast political content and because he complied with the government’s rules.
Mr. Kanharith said last week that the Women’s Media Center had skirted shutdown because of its owners’ charitable activities.
A study by the Asia Foundation and Open Institute last year found that 15 percent of respondents in Cambodia got their news from radio—half as many as top-ranked social media, and down from 39 percent of in 2013.
“What is important is the trend: We expect an increase not only in Internet penetration but also in the importance that the users give to Internet,” the study authors wrote.
Mr. Mahajan said RFA had already seen an uptick in website traffic and social media engagement, and said some listeners were still tuning in via shortwave radio. His counterpart at VOA, George Mackenzie, said the outlet was also concerned about the crackdown but said it would continue its broadcasts and digital presence.
John Lansing, CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA and RFA, wrote in a statement last week that the closures were “part of a pattern of intimidation and harassment of independent news sources that coincides with the run up to the 2018 elections.” He called on the government to reverse its decision.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday joined a growing chorus of international condemnation for the station closures, tax case against the Daily, and Foreign Ministry shutdown of the U.S. democracy NGO National Democratic Institute.
“Ahead of next year’s general election, we call on the Government to guarantee full political and civil rights, and media freedoms,” said Liz Throssell, the organization’s spokeswoman.