February 6, 2003, New York – The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today sent a letter of inquiry to Prime Minister Hun Sen requesting information about the arrest of Mam Sonando, owner and manager of Beehive (Sombok Khmum) radio station, and In Chan Sivutha, editor of the Light of Angkor (Rasmei Angkor) newspaper. Both men have been formally charged with inciting crimes and discrimination and disseminating false information, in connection with the anti-Thai riots that engulfed the capital, Phnom Penh, last week.
In the letter, CPJ expressed concern that the government’s selective prosecution of Mam Sonando and In Chan Sivutha appears to be an attempt to use the journalists as scapegoats for an incident that became a major diplomatic fiasco, badly damaging relations between Cambodia and Thailand. The letter noted that there is no comparable effort underway to prosecute government officials who made inflammatory statements during the protests and who did little to discourage the rioting.
On the morning of January 29, about 400 people gathered at the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh to protest against comments that Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple should belong to Thailand. These comments, which were attributed to popular Thai actress Suwanan Konying, were first published by the Light of Angkor and then circulated widely by the local media. Suwanan denies ever making this statement, and In Chan Sivutha now concedes that the Light of Angkor failed to verify the accuracy of its report.
By the evening of January 29, the protests became violent as demonstrators looted Thai-owned businesses and set fire to the Thai embassy. At least one person was killed and several people were injured, according to international news reports.
Amid the protests, a live Beehive radio talk show broadcast a caller’s statement that several Cambodian embassy officials were killed in Thailand in retaliation for the protests-allegations that proved to be false. Prime Minister Hun Sen has stated that the broadcast, which he said aired at about 2:30 p.m. before the violence erupted, directly incited the riots. However, employees of the radio station say the call was broadcast at night after the fury had died down. CPJ sources who witnessed the riots do not believe that the radio broadcast was a direct cause of the violence.
The next day, at about 7:00 p.m., two men went to Mam Sonando’s home and asked the journalist to accompany them to a meeting with a government official, according to the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Center for Human Rights. However, the men instead drove the journalist to the local police station, where he was arrested. He was formally charged on January 31.
Beehive radio is the only independent radio station in Cambodia. Mam Sonando is a former opposition politician who headed the Beehive Party, which collapsed after losing legislative elections in 1998.
On February 1, In Chan Sivutha was arrested and formally charged for publishing the comments that were attributed to Suwanan. If convicted, both Mam Sonando and In Chan Sivutha could face up to nine years in prison.
In the letter, CPJ, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to the defense of press freedom worldwide, asked that Mam Sonando and In Chan Sivutha be released immediately on bail while the investigation into the cause of the riots continues. Furthermore, CPJ urged the government to make the results of these investigations public. We also respectfully asked the Prime Minister to ensure that journalists in Cambodia are not subject to arbitrary arrest, and that serious charges such as incitement are not used as a pretext to target the media.