Government mouthpiece Fresh News yesterday launched a new internet radio service, appearing poised to move into the gap left by a government crackdown on independent broadcasters over the last six weeks.
More than 30 radio frequencies have been recently shut down by the Information Ministry – disproportionately affecting the broadcasts of Voice of Democracy and US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The latter two have also been hounded by tax and licensing issues.
These issues resulted in the closure of Radio Free Asia’s in-country operations earlier this month, though they continue to broadcast on shortwave frequencies, and online. A tax dispute also forced the fiercely independent Cambodia Daily to close this month.
Fresh News’s new service, dubbed “Fresh News Radio – Voice of Breaking News”, is available as a plug-in on the news website and, as of yesterday, was broadcasting music interspersed with short bulletins during the day.
In the evening, it featured a longer newscast with local stories lambasting the opposition and the European Union after the latter was called out by Prime Minister Hun Sen over its criticism of the controversial Lower Sesan II Dam.
Lim Cheavutha, CEO of Fresh News, was reluctant to speak about the service yesterday, saying it was only in the testing phase and awaiting a formal launch.
“[We are] in the process of the testing,” he said. “In upcoming three or four days I will tell you when it launches. “Now I cannot comment on anything.”
After the conversation, the small plug-in was removed from the home page, though the broadcast was still available on a microsite – radio.freshnewsasia.com.
The outlet – a favoured clearinghouse for Cambodian People’s Party statements and interviews – has recently led the charge in an anti-opposition campaign, often publishing unverified, damning stories and anonymous accusations in the form letters to the editor.
Recently, a series of pieces accused the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party of conspiring with the CIA, international NGOs, freelance journalists and the ruling party of Taiwan to topple the CPP-led government.
Despite the seemingly fantastical nature of the claims, the publication of the pieces precipitated the expulsion of pro-democracy NGO National Democratic Institute, and the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of “treason”.
Information Ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng yesterday said the news service was free to broadcast its content in radio format on the internet and had not requested an FM broadcast licence.
He added that the development had nothing to do with the closures of Radio Free Asia and the Cambodia Daily, and did not find fault with Fresh News’s strong pro-government lean. “This is the right of all media to take a stance . . . and it is their right as well,” he said.
RFA and VOA, however, have been frequent targets of government criticism for a purported “pro-opposition” stance, and a promised CNRP television station has been wrapped up in red tape for years.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said the timing of the Fresh News launch was no coincidence.
The increasing restrictions on independent media, coupled with low tolerance for online dissent, betrayed an attempt “to asphyxiate freedom of expression entirely”, Robertson said in an email.
“Get ready for news that PM Hun Sen was seen walking on the water or even more egregious rumors and outright lies.”