Before its owner was arrested in July on charges of insurrection, Beehive radio had hit the consciousness of few outside Cambodia.
While international rights groups and press watchdogs were quick to jump on a story of political posturing and the quashing of free speech in the wake of the Mam Sonando case, most had only the faintest understanding of the significance of his station.
But for the estimated hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who have grown into dedicated listeners over the past two decades, Beehive has held a paramount position.
And the disappearance of Sonando from the station with which he was synonymous has made a significant dent on one of the nation’s only independent outlets. Without Sonando – who was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment on October 1 on charges of stoking a so-called secessionist movement – Beehive broadcasting continues full tilt.
It still airs VOA and RFA reports, it still sells time to NGOs, the opposition and the royalists. What it cannot do anymore, and what most observers finger as the single most provocative and meaningful piece of programming, is air Sonando’s Voice of Democracy: a call-in show where listeners report everything from land grabs to police intimidation and Sonando advises the callers on their legal rights.
“No one can play this role besides him,” explained Sonando’s wife, Din Phannara, who has taken over the directorship since his arrest.
“Previously, the people called to ask the president to explain and work out their problems such as land disputes and legal issues, but now there isn’t anyone who can do it,” she said. “We feel really regretful following the loss of this useful program.”
While the government has loudly and repeatedly insisted it has no intention to shutter the station (and pointed to its refusal to do so as proof positive the charges against Sonando were not related to freedom of expression), it has nevertheless managed to change the media landscape with Sonando’s imprisonment.
In other words, say the more cynical, by shutting Sonando up, it may as well have shut Beehive down.
“A number of important social programs were stopped for broadcasting. Therefore, it is the same as the closure of the station,” said Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for rights group Licadho.
Others wondered whether the decision to allow the radio station to continue operating had more to do with public perception than anything substantive.
“They take cues from the Singapore experience, with respect to the composition of the parliament,” political analyst Lao Mong Hay said by way of analogy.
“Among the MPs, some one or two independent MPs are appointed to represent the non-government or non-ruling party voice. To show that democracy exists. The exception to the rules are easy to control.”
Without the call-in show, many agree, a key platform for public dissent has been lost.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, which has run numerous studies on media independence, said the program was the only one of its kind.
“His program was very powerful actually. Other programs try to be [calm]. His was more [about] open and direct talk. People could talk whatever they want to talk – they criticised the government, criticised the opposition, it was very open… He opened people up to speaking,” he said.
“Villagers who have problems with the land or with authorities, likely they would have no platform or forum to speak about this like they could on his program,” Panha added.
Indeed, for listeners, Sonando’s disappearance from the airwaves has been felt acutely.
“In spite of the disappearance of this program, I still listen to the other broadcasts such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America,” pointed out Chan Horm, a longtime listener from Kandal province. But, he continued, the loss of Sonando’s voice had been highly disappointing.
“He used to explain the legal affairs to the people, and now we can hear only the speeches he delivered in the past.”
And with Sonando, who is 71, facing a virtual life sentence, some wonder whether that space will be filled anytime soon.
“I cannot see any successor – in terms of one who expresses freedom of opinion, of broadcasting,” conceded Panha. “He’s very strong.”