The signal is fading.
With two towers and only one licence, 105 FM could never have expected to have the range of mainstream stations. But with a 10-kilowatt transmitter, Beehive Radio for years managed to broadcast far beyond its Phnom Penh base.
In recent months, however, roughly coinciding with the March 16 release from prison of its embattled owner Mam Sonando, the station has grown fuzzy.
In Kandal province, 66-year-old Chan Horm has long listened to the independent station from his Loeuk Dek district home.
“Recently, the station has a problem. Some days in the morning I can listen, but other days it’s interrupted by other signals.”
The problems, Horm said, “just started in March”.
Further afield, Saren Ket, in Kratie’s Snuol district, has had increasing trouble tuning in.
“I haven’t been able to hear it clearly recently,” Ket said.
According to Sonando, whose programming can be vitriolically anti-government at times, the signal previously could be heard in much of Takeo, Kandal and Kampong Speu as well as in parts of Siem Reap, Pursat, Prey Veng, Svay Rieng, Kampong Cham and Kratie.
“Now, radio stations have grown like grass, so that my radio only has a narrow space left,” he said. “They can’t listen anymore, because [the government] doesn’t want those people in the provinces to hear what is happening on my radio.”
The government, for its part, called Sonando’s claim outlandish.
If anything, said Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, “it must be his station that would interfere with the others, not the other [way around]”.
“Some stations sharing nearby Sonando’s frequency is less than 3 KW, while Sonando’s is more than 10 KW (more than the license allowed),” he pointed out on Facebook.
Kanharith said the ministry did not block the station, and noted that: “It is illegal to use his frequency.”
But like the listeners, rights monitors said they had noticed a similar shift.
“Beehive has 10 kilowatts of power – it should be reaching all the way to Prey Veng, Kampong Thom and Pursat,” said Cambodian Centre of Human Rights president Ou Virak. “But the reach has been limited now, even inside of Phnom Penh, because the frequencies close to Beehive are being given out. And as far as I know, this is by design.
“The government is not happy with what is being said. It’s not difficult to see a motive behind this.”
The station, which is one of just a handful of independent channels in Cambodia, broadcasts original reporting, airs coverage from RFA and VOA, and hosts NGOs and the opposition. But the cornerstone of its programming is Sonando’s Voice of Democracy – a 2.5-hour daily call-in show where he advises listeners on their rights regarding everything from land grabs to intimidation by the authorities.
Many point to the show and Sonando’s powerful presence as the likely reason for his July 2012 arrest and subsequent conviction on insurrection charges. While Sonando was found guilty of stoking a so-called secession movement, rights groups and foreign governments called the charges inane, saying they were drummed up to jail an opposing voice that had grown too influential. In March, amid protracted campaigning, the Appeal Court dropped the heaviest of charges, reduced his sentence from 20 to 5 years and released him on probation.
Sonando immediately returned to the airwaves, and the new Voice of Democracy remains identical to its previous iteration.
“I am still doing my old program. I did not change, because I want to people to understand about their rights in a democratic country,” he said.
Ten days ago, Sonando applied for licences in four provinces – a request he has made, and had been shot down, repeatedly.
It is doubtful this time will be different.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the airwaves were almost exclusively reserved for pro-government programs.
When independent or opposition stations apply, he noted, “The Ministry of Information always says that they already gave all licences to everyone, so that’s why they don’t have any remaining frequencies left. But we found out that new radio stations have been set up and given new licences.”
“Ninety per cent is pro-CPP radio. They try to [keep] pro-CPP, pro-the current government stations on air.”