Cambodia has threatened legal action against two US-funded radio stations, accusing them of favouring opposition parties and promoting US foreign policy, the Reuters news agency has reported.
Representatives of Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) were called to a closed-door meeting, two sources who attended the meeting told Reuters on Thursday.
The government complained about their coverage of border demarcation issues with Vietnam and the October 1 jailing of a broadcaster and land rights campaigner for “secessionism”, the sources said.
The dressing-down comes amid criticism by rights groups of the government for leaning on the judiciary to silence the small number of critics in the country who dare to speak out.
RFA and VOA broadcast locally in the Khmer language and are among the few radio stations in Cambodia considered free of government influence.
One source said an official present at the meeting labelled the two broadcasters “rebel and opposition radios”.
“They wanted the radio stations to report more about the activities of the government and they don’t want RFA to be used as a campaign for opposition parties,” the source told Reuters under the condition of anonymity.
Both sources said the two stations were told to change their reporting or face unspecified legal action, adding they were accused of propagating policies of the US State Department.
RFA described the meeting as “a blatant attempt to discourage objective reporting on the government”.
“The Cambodian government clearly does not understand the principles of a free press or the important role of independent media if it thinks it can intimidate RFA and dictate what we can or cannot report on,” US-based spokesman John Estrella said in a statement.
The meeting came just a week after both stations, who broadcast news in the local Khmer language, reported on the outcry that followed the jailing of prominent activist Mam Sonando for an alleged secessionist plot, in a case
decried by rights groups as a politically motivated attempt to silence dissent.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, who was at the or talks with representatives from VOA and RFA, said the purpose of the encounter was “to strengthen the quality of professionalism” in their reports and raise the issue of “paying respect to the Cambodian culture”.
“We don’t accuse anyone,” he told AFP. “We want a good relationship between media and the government … but the free press has to be responsible.”
He declined to comment further.
VOA Khmer service chief Chris Decherd, who is based in the US, said its reporters would continue to provide news “in the same objective and professional manner” to the people of Cambodia.
“It is those citizens who are our audience. They deserve quality news that they can trust,” he said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on the meeting but appeared to back the two stations.
“In general, the United States supports freedom of expression and press, and through their reporting, VOA and RFA
seek to epitomise that,” the spokeswoman said in an email.
Story in question
Sonando, a 71-year-old radio broadcaster and land-rights campaigner, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after he was found guilty of leading an anti-state rebellion, a verdict condemned by activists as a further crackdown on human rights.
Three judges in the Phnom Penh court convicted Sonando, who has joint Cambodian-French citizenship, and 13 others of inciting villagers in eastern Kratie province to rebel against the government.
Sonando, a long-time rights campaigner and critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen, stood accused of inciting villagers to take up arms and of aiming to recruit up to a million people to topple the government, charges his supporters say were trumped up.
A 14-year-old girl was killed in May when security forces fired on villagers whom Sonando was found guilty of assisting. No one was arrested for her killing.
Hun Sen urged in a nationally broadcast speech in June that Sonando be arrested for masterminding “a plot to overthrow the government and attempting to establish a state within a state”.
Sonando, the head of Beehive Radio, had pleaded not guilty.
The number of land disputes in Cambodia has exploded in recent years as the economy grows rapidly and companies move to exploit natural resources such as rubber, sugar, and minerals.