The Cambodia National Rescue Party has said it may seek clarification from the Information Ministry following the controversial closure of more than a dozen radio stations broadcasting critical programming.
In the past week, the ministry has closed down at least 15 stations broadcasting content from Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Voice of Democracy, as well as CNRP-produced content, prompting widespread criticism of what many see as a move against outlets critical of the government ahead of the hotly anticipated national election next July.
The ministry has claimed it acted because of contract violations, with spokesman Ouk Kimseng on Tuesday saying the radio stations had ignored several warnings about airing externally produced content without notifying the ministry.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the party was considering sending an official letter to the ministry, led by Minister for Information Khieu Kanharith, to ask for answers.
“We will have an official letter to ask them to specify exactly how many radio stations have been shut down, and what the contracts look like,” Chhay said, according to an audio clip published online by Radio Free Asia.
The closures come in the thick of what many see as a crackdown on media and civil society ahead of next year’s election. RFA and VOA have recently been targeted over tax compliance, as has the Cambodia Daily newspaper, which the General Department of Taxation has threatened to shut on Monday unless it pays a purported $6.3 million in back taxes.
Despite the increased pressure and loss of several radio stations, representatives of RFA and VOA said they were continuing to serve their audiences.
Rohit Mahajan, RFA’s director of public affairs and digital strategy, said the closure of radio stations broadcasting their material via an FM signal would certainly cut heavily into listenership, with a recent poll finding 70 percent of their regular audience tuned in on FM.
However, he added that RFA had seen a spike in their online audience, with Monday this week registering a 70 percent increase in engagement – including “likes”, shares and comments – compared to Monday last week.
“I cannot speak for the government’s motivations, but its actions fit a worrisome pattern against free press that has escalated recently, perhaps in anticipation of next year’s elections,” Mahajan said. “It’s very difficult to consider that authorities would not be aware of the impact of shutting down local stations that carry RFA.”
Meanwhile, VOA Public Relations Officer Michelle Harris said its broadcasts were still reaching Cambodians through affiliate stations, medium- and short-wave signals and online.
She said Phnom Penh’s Beehive Radio still carried VOA programming for 90 minutes per day and the Women’s Media Centre for 30 minutes, the latter reaching provinces outside the capital.
“Voice of America is concerned that authorities in Cambodia are taking actions that seemingly are targeted to reduce the amount of independent news and information available to the 15 million citizens in Cambodia,” she added.