PHNOM PENH —
After Radio Free Asia last week announced the closure of its news bureau in Cambodia after 20 years, Cambodian listeners expressed disappointment over the shuttering of another reporting hub presenting independent and critical news to the public.
The closure of the U.S.-funded broadcaster’s in-country operations came just days after the English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper closed after declining to pay a $6.3 million alleged tax bill and as fellow U.S. broadcaster, VOA has seen its Khmer-language broadcasts dropped by FM radio affiliate stations.
Kheang Meng, a market stall seller in central Phnom Penh, said he had relied on RFA’s Khmer-language news broadcasts and original reporting about Cambodia for many years.
The 70-year-old said he was disappointed that he could no longer easily tune into RFA on FM stations such as those operated by the Women’s Media Center and Beehive Radio. All FM stations were ordered in recent weeks by the Information Ministry to no longer carry RFA and VOA Khmer-language news broadcasts.
“Most citizens can no longer hear real information,’’ Kheang Meng told VOA Khmer. ‘’They [independent media] are all closed. We used to listen, now we can no longer know any information,” he said, referring to the government’s closure of more than a dozen mostly small FM radio stations in recent weeks, several of which carried RFA and VOA broadcasts.
“We only get one side. I’m upset because I used to listen to them.”
In a statement, RFA said it had been forced to close down its reporting base in Phnom Penh amid increasing pressure from the government.
It added that its management had determined that Prime Minister Hun Sen had “no intention” of allowing free media to continue to operate in the country.
“The government has instead seized on every opportunity to go after critics, political opponents, NGOs, and independent media committed to reporting the truth. Using a thin pretext of tax and administrative violations,” RFA said.
RFA continues to report and produce content from its headquarters in Washington, DC, and produces two live 60-minute radio-broadcasts daily via short-wave radio and on digital platforms, and maintains a robust website and Facebook page.
Yet many listeners said they miss the unique stories RFA brought to their homes by familiar RFA reporters in-the-field in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh resident Oum Sambo, 53, said she has listened to RFA together with her father for many years. She said a lack of RFA journalists asking questions to government officials will have a great impact on Cambodians’ lives, especially those who suffer injustices, as RFA specialized in broadcasting on social issues.
“It is a dead end as long as there is no independent radio, no RFA,” she said. “Citizens’ lives will be over because economics, education, and so forth are all that’s in the news. I really pity the press. Independent news reporters face anger. They have knowledge and ethics and they are reporting what they see.”
Meas Saroeun, 52, a Battambang province resident and an avid RFA listener, said he hoped that RFA would re-open its Phnom Penh office so that Cambodians could continue to receive trustworthy news.
“Radio Free Asia has provided a lot of information, such as reporting on social development and human rights abuses. RFA has regularly broadcast so much beneficial information for citizens,” he said.
“Their regular listeners really want to know about society,’’ Meas Saroeun said. ‘’So when I heard they had temporarily shut down their operation [in Cambodia], I was really upset and can no longer find trustworthy news to listen to.’’
Ouk Kimseng, the information ministry spokesman, asserted at a press conference last week at the Information Ministry that RFA did not follow instructions.
“If their reporting violates state law, they have to be responsible,” Ouk Kimseng told a room full of reporters.
Cambodia's Information Ministry closed at least 19 radio stations across the country in recent weeks, some on charges that they violated their state contracts by overselling RFA and Voice of America programming.
Nathan Thompson, president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, said the move against RFA was “part of a wide-ranging tactic to clear out dissenting voices ahead of next year's election.”