Prime minister muzzles popular radio broadcaster

New York, October 12, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned the arrest of the head of Cambodia’s only independent radio station on charges of criminal libel filed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Police detained Mam Sonando, owner and manager of Beehive radio (Sombok Khmum), yesterday at his home outside the capital Phnom Penh. The prime minister filed criminal defamation charges on Friday citing an interview broadcast last month, which criticized a border agreement with Vietnam.

“It is outrageous for a political leader to jail a journalist who airs criticism of his policies,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “Hun Sen is using a veneer of legality but this is a indisputable attack on press freedom. We call for the immediate release of Mam Sonando.”

Hun Sen , speaking with reporters today upon his return from Vietnam where he signed the border agreement, threatened to prosecute others who criticize his government. “This is no joke,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur quoted him as saying.

Hun Sen filed the charges after Beehive broadcast an interview with Sean Peng Se, an expert on Cambodia’s borders, who questioned the accord with Vietnam.

A government spokesman told Voice of America radio that Sonando was jailed for “professional mistakes” because the report on the border agreement gave only one side of the story. If convicted, Sonando faces up to one year in jail.

The popular FM station is the only source of independent news broadcasting in Cambodia. Beehive leases airtime to the U.S.-government run Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, another source of conflict with the government, which has periodically banned the rebroadcast of foreign-sourced news.

Sonando, a former opposition politician, was arrested in 2003 and spent two weeks in jail on charges of incitement, discrimination and disseminating false news in connection with anti-Thai riots that swept Phnom Penh early that year. The riots followed comments attributed to popular Thai actress Suwanan Konying that Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat Temple should belong to Thailand. She denied making the comments. CPJ sources who witnessed the riots did not believe that the radio station was a direct cause of the violence.