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Radio Silence

Wednesday 5 August 2020

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Hang Sobratsavyouth is a Cambodian veteran journalist. He used to cover sensitive issues such as corruption and land rights abuse for the Radio Free Asia in Khmer language, before it was pressured to close its operation in Phnom Penh in 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)

RADIO SILENCE : PART THREE

STORY BY SUN NARIN & KHAN SOKUMMONO
EDIT BY ANANTH BALIGA

Editor's Note: In the last story of this series, VOA Khmer reporters speak to the journalists affected by the government’s 2017 media crackdown. As readers and listeners mourn the lack of independent news coverage, reporters on the frontlines have had to bear the brunt of the government’s anger towards independent journalists.
Reporters and editors said that while there are fewer and fewer independent publications and news outlets in Cambodia to work at – forcing many to leave the profession – those who remain in journalism are committed to reporting the news independently and accurately for Cambodian citizens.



SIEM REAP PROVINCE, CambodiaHang Sobratsavyouth is no stranger to conflict. The veteran journalist’s reportage has confronted the government on a number of uncomfortable issues.

Based in the northern province of Siem Reap, Savyouth used to work for Radio Free Asia’s Cambodia Bureau. Listeners often remarked about Savyouth’s booming voice as he delivered researched news reports from the temple town and adjoining provinces.

But his news reports came to an abrupt halt in 2017. Following the closure of radio stations and the government’s use of tax bills to pressure independent news services, Radio Free Asia (RFA) closed its local bureau in September 2017.

“I still miss work. I can’t forget it,” Savyouth said. “Though I lost my job, I still love the profession.”

The RFA closure accompanied similar tax bills handed to The Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post, both independent newspapers with a reputation for their investigative reporting.

While the Daily decided to shut down its operations, the Phnom Penh Post was sold to a Malaysian businessman with ties to the Cambodian prime minister. This lead to a staff exodus over editorial interference from the new owner.

“Her father came to meet me and knelled down to say thank you. Reporting helps victims seeking justice.”

Voice of America and Voice of Democracy were also affected by the shutting down of local and affiliate radio stations, immediately stopping radio broadcasts to large numbers of rural Cambodians.

In Siem Reap province, local newspaper vendors said there are only two newspaper stalls remaining in the entire province. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
In Siem Reap province, local newspaper vendors said there are only two newspaper stalls remaining in the entire province. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

The media crackdown dealt a severe blow to independent news organizations in Cambodia. However, the worst effects were felt by the journalists who worked for these publications and broadcasters and their sources.

Savyouth points out that on many occasions news reports helped locals get some semblance of justice from Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt local administration and judiciary.

He recalls how a Siem Reap woman was wrongfully arrested on drug trafficking charges. An investigative report from RFA showed the woman to be innocent, leading to her eventual release from prison.

“Her father came to meet me and knelled down to say thank you,” he said. “Reporting helps victims seeking justice.”

But Savyouth is now deprived the thrill of investigating a lead or reporting a story that could undo an injustice. Savyouth said he has been silenced.

Fear, intimidation and arrests

As independent publications and radio broadcasters shut down or scaled back their operations, it was the arrest of two former RFA reporters that sent a warning to the country’s journalists.

Days before the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in November 2017, Phnom Penh authorities arrested Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, both former RFA reporters, for allegedly running a karaoke studio without permission.

However, the police’s narrative soon changed and the two were booked under espionage provisions for allegedly supplying information to a foreign state. Police alleged they had broken the law by filing stories for RFA, after the broadcaster had ended in-country operations.

The duo spent nine months in pre-trial detention and were released on court-supervised bail in August 2018. The duo stepped out of prison but soon found their movements severely restricted, affecting their chances of rejoining the workforce. They were expected to visit the local police station once a month and not allowed to travel overseas.

FILE - Two former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin, center, and Yeang Socheamet, right, hold together as they walk outside the main prison of Prey Sar at the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 21, 2018.
FILE - Two former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin, center, and Yeang Socheamet, right, hold together as they walk outside the main prison of Prey Sar at the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 21, 2018.

After a protracted trial in August, a judge on October 3 ruled that there was not enough evidence to prosecute them. However, the trial judge chose to send it back to the investigating judge rather than drop the charges, furthering the duo’s ordeal.

The nearly two-year-long case has served as a deterrence for journalists to aggressively pursue investigative and in-depth reporting, fearing government reprisal. Government officials are often quoted telling journalists to report professionally, a thinly-veiled threat to refrain from critical reportage.

However, this has done little to dampen Yeang Sothearin’s spirits, who is hoping to move past his court case and get back to journalism. There was a lack of information reaching Cambodians, he said, and that this was affecting their ability to participate in the democratic process.

“In a democracy, people really need information so they can make decisions,” he said, speaking to VOA Khmer outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in September.

“When they lack information, or don’t receive comprehensive information, it limits their decision-making abilities,” he added.

Another case that resonated with Cambodian journalists was the imprisoning of media fixer Rath Rott Mony. He assisted Russian government-funded Russia Today in producing a documentary on young Cambodian women trafficked into the sex trade.

My relatives and wife asked me to stop immediately after the crackdown and told me to be careful.”

The Cambodian government was quick to lash out at the report, however, directing its ire at Rath Rott Mony, rather than the publisher of the documentary, Russia Today.

In June, Rath Rott Mony was handed a two-year prison sentence and asked to pay a $17,200 fine for “incitement,” with Russia Today getting not as much as a reprimand for the story.

Pov Meta, a news editor with Voice of Democracy, said these developments had caused journalists to use a more cautious approach to reporting stories, most fearful of being jailed for a story the government deemed unfavorable.

“Authorities don’t think we are independent media organizations. They think we are opposition news outlets and that affects our journalists,” said Pov Meta.

Pov Meta’s colleague, Chhorn Chansy, said the government never looks at the merits of a story, just the publication involved. This meant the government rejected genuine stories, even if they were of immediate public importance.

“There are still government officials who discriminate against some of the press,” said Chhorn Chansy, who is a project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media.

“If you call and tell them which media organization you work for, some [officials] just start accusing us of this and that.”

Both journalists have felt the effects of the crackdown in different ways. Chhorn Chansy was a veteran editor at The Cambodia Daily before it was shuttered and Pov Meta said his family have repeatedly tried to dissuade him from continuing in journalism.

“My relatives and wife asked me to stop immediately after the crackdown and told me to be careful,” he said.

A lot of dejection, peppered with some resilience

In Siem Reap, Savyouth recollects a land dispute he covered involving villagers and the Apsara Authority, which runs the Angkor Archeological Park in Siem Reap. The dispute had farmers pitted against the temple authority since 2006, with the Apsara Authority being accused of occupying the villagers’ land illegally.

Savyouth said he had followed the story for years to ensure that any excesses committed by the Apsara Authority would be known to the public. However, 13 years later the dispute has persisted, but Savyuoth is no longer reporting on it.

Min Huo is a farmer in Siem Reap province, which had been involved in a land dispute with the Apsara Authority since 2006. He hopes the remaining news organizations will continue to cover issues such as the one that his community faces in order to hold the authorities accountable. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Min Huo is a farmer in Siem Reap province, which had been involved in a land dispute with the Apsara Authority since 2006. He hopes the remaining news organizations will continue to cover issues such as the one that his community faces in order to hold the authorities accountable. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Savyouth’s bleakness is mirrored by Huo Min, a farmer at the center of the dispute with the Apsara Authority. Huo Min often featured in Savyouth’s reports on the story and sees little hope following RFA’s closure.

He still wants reporters to file stories about the dispute in the slim chance that it will keep the authorities accountable.

“It is important to have journalists covering so that it will be heard by all people from everywhere in Cambodia,” he said.

Like many of his contemporaries across the country, Savyouth still holds hope that the situation will improve and he can resume his job as a reporter.

“I still miss and regret not being able to report, but what can I do since I can’t report stories,” he said. “If I have a chance I will do journalism for ten more years until I am 60 years old.”

Read Radio Silence | Part One

Read Radio Silence | Part Two

Read the Three-Part Series

Nga Ruot, a 58-year-old farmer in a remote village of Battambang province, said her daughter recently bought her a new radio, the first time she's ever owned. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)

RADIO SILENCE : PART TWO

STORY BY SUN NARIN & KHAN SOKUMMONO
EDIT BY ANANTH BALIGA

Editor's Note: In the second story of the ‘Radio Silence’ series, VOA Khmer reporters look at how the shuttering of independent radio news broadcasts has not only left rural Cambodians less informed but it also increased the cost of accessing such news.
Where once a cheap transistor radio was all one needed to access the preferred Khmer-language news broadcaster, now more Cambodians are being forced to try to jump on the digital bandwagon to get their daily news.



PREY VENG AND BATTAMBANG PROVINCE, Cambodia — Nga Ruot is very pleased with her family’s latest purchase. For the first time in 58 years, the experienced rice farmer owns a radio, gifted to her by a daughter who works at garment factory in Kandal province.

The $6 piece of equipment may not seem like much, but owning a radio is a valuable commodity in Cambodia’s far-flung districts. The drone of the Buddhist dharma, where monks recite ancient teachings, fills Nga Ruot's house in Battambang province, as she takes care of her grandchild.

Nga Ruot isn’t particular about what she listens to, despite the same daughter, Pha Bona, wanting her mother to listen to the news and keep in touch with events around the country.

“[I] want her to listen to news and know how our society is going now,” Pha Bona said.

Changing media landscape

Radio news broadcasts are the primary source of information for a large swathe of Cambodians in rural areas, many supporting families by fishing or subsistence farming. However, for the last two years there has been little independent news coverage easily accessible on the airwaves.

If we listen to news, we will have knowledge. We are able to think. If we don’t listen, we don’t know anything.”

In 2017, the government shut down radio frequencies broadcasting Khmer-language programming from Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of Democracy (VOD) and Voice of America (VOA), under the guise of administrative violations. The government also labelled these organizations as part of a “color revolution” aimed at overthrowing the Cambodian People’s Party government.

This left many Cambodians with almost no access to critical, analytical news coverage and, in the process, diminished the value of owning a radio in rural Cambodia.

Sum Pha holds his smartphone and a portable speaker which he uses to listen to the news broadcasts. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)
Sum Pha holds his smartphone and a portable speaker which he uses to listen to the news broadcasts. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)

Nga Ruot said she was unaware of the radio station crackdown, but her husband, Sum Pha, did hear of the political events in 2017, on a neighbor’s radio. Both confess to barely listening to the news on the radio, but are still aware of its benefits.

“If we listen to news, we will have knowledge. We are able to think. If we don’t listen, we don’t know anything,” he said.

Soon after the closure of radio stations, some broadcasters emphasized or pivoted to AM transmissions and increased their reliance on live or recorded news bulletins on Facebook – the social media site has a sizable user base in Cambodia. Neither could provide the same audience reach that FM broadcasts afforded to these broadcasters.

A possible reason for this is that accessing the news became more costly.

While a radio can cost under $10 and give people access to over 150 radio broadcasts in Cambodia, a smartphone with basic features costs around $100, with the additional cost of 3G or 4G data connections. Network reach is also low, the further you get from provincial towns.

This has resulted in an exponential cost increase for rural Cambodians looking to access independent or critical news reports. Sometimes, if they can afford the equipment, they are unaware of how exactly to access VOA or RFA broadcasts on social media, villagers said.

And the growing concern among experts is that the dramatic changes to the media landscape will leave the country with an uninformed electorate.

Nga Ruot and Sum Pha grow vegetables on land they lease. They had a bad harvest this year. They said it was because of a lack of water. Yet they said they never received warnings about shortages.

Sum Pha tends to his four cows during a late afternoon after having worked in the rice field, in a remote village of Battambang province. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)
Sum Pha tends to his four cows during a late afternoon after having worked in the rice field, in a remote village of Battambang province. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)

Sum Pha, who tries to keep up with the news, said he was completely unaware that the European Union was considering suspending the ‘Everything But Arms’ trade preferences to Cambodia.

And it quickly struck him that suspension of the trade agreement would mean his three daughters’ jobs at the garment factory were at risk.

“If [factories] close, my daughters won’t have work and salary,’’ Sum Pha said. ‘’Life at home here will be in misery.’’

Lack of Information

The lack of information flow is not surprising given that all major television channels, newspapers and radio broadcasters are owned by affiliates of the government. One of Cambodia’s biggest TV networks and radio broadcasters is owned, for example, by the prime minister’s daughter, Hun Mana.

News is like their breath. Losing news is like losing oxygen.”

In the days leading to the 2018 national election, 17 publications were preemptively blocked because the government feared they could publish provocative content. This meant that Cambodians had access to only pro-government publications for the three days prior to election day.

Another example of selective publication of news was evident in August. Two local NGOs published a report on human rights violations in the microfinance sector. Most pro-government publications did not publish the findings, but were quick to file stories about the government slamming the report.

Back in Battambang, Sum Pha’s neighbor, Hun Mao, is unhappy with her rice crop, again blaming a lack of water for the harvest’s failure. She said she heard no news or information about the lack of water.

“They only report about the villages near the stream, but [my village] here is far,” said the 55-year-old farmer and vegetable vendor.

Nop Vy, from the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said the lack of news diversity was affecting Cambodians’ abilities to make decisions, whether it be about when to plant their crop or the opinion of political developments.

He added that citizens had a right to access information, the lack of which was stifling public discourse, especially in the rural areas.

“News is like their breath. Losing news is like losing oxygen,” Nop Vy said.

It is clear that Cambodians had benefited from a diversity of media voices in the past, said Cambodian observer Sebastian Strangio, be it an array of pro-government, pro-opposition and independent publications.

In rural Cambodia, elderly villagers often gather to discuss and share the day's at local coffee shops. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)
In rural Cambodia, elderly villagers often gather to discuss and share the day's at local coffee shops. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)

“​We don't discriminate”​

But following the events of 2017, the government had successfully ensured only their political narrative remained in the public sphere, though there was hope in the online space, said Strangio, who is also the author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”

“One positive is that people can access pretty much whatever they want online, including less biased (or differently biased) news, but of course Hun Sen and the Cambodian government have moved aggressively into that sphere as well,” Sebastian Strangio said.

If we don’t know the news, we are just following orders.”

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan was dismissive of concerns relating to news availability for rural Cambodians, and pointed to his own interviews with RFA and VOA Khmer to suggest there was no political bias against them.

“I still cooperate with VOA and RFA in giving interviews,’’ Phay Siphan said. ‘’We don’t discriminate. Villagers are currently able to listen to news online freely.”

As farmers in Battambang province make the slow transition to embrace the digital medium and regain access to their preferred news broadcasts, it is a similar situation in Prey Veng province.

In Romleach commune, Ann Arth bought his daughter a smartphone as a study aid. He is aware that the phone has an internet connection but has not asked his daughter, Arth Chantheng, to play RFA and VOA news clips.

Ann Arth hesitancy comes from an instilled fear of listening to these broadcasters. That simple act could land him in trouble with local authorities.

Fortunate for her, Arth Chantheng learned to access the RFA and VOA Facebook pages, and now helps her father listen to these news reports regularly.

“If I had to ask the government for one thing, it is to just allow those radio stations back. It is easier for old people to listen to,” said Ann Arth, 48.

“If we don’t know the news, we are just following orders.”

Editor's Note: In the third and final story in the ‘Radio Silence’ series, VOA reporters look at how the media crackdown has affected the people who report the news every day. While some have lost their jobs, others have paid the heavier price of being jailed.

Read Radio Silence | Part One

Read Radio Silence | Part Three

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