The owner of one of Cambodia's few independent radio stations has been arrested and charged with criminal defamation, for allegedly airing programs critical of the prime minister. In Phnom Penh, human rights groups and the U.S. Embassy have denounced the arrest as a serious threat to free speech and democracy.
Mam Sonando, a popular independent journalist and owner of the Beehive Radio station in Phnom Penh, was arrested by police on Tuesday and charged with criminal defamation. The arrest followed a lawsuit filed on behalf of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The journalist's crime was to broadcast an interview with an expert on Cambodia's borders, who accused Hun Sen of allowing Vietnam to take over Cambodian land. The expert, Sean Pengse, previously served as president of the Paris-based Cambodia's Border Committee, and has also been charged with defamation. He is believed to be in France.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith says Mam Sonando, who faces up to a year in prison, committed "professional mistakes" for broadcasting just one side of the story. The journalist's lawyer, Hong Kimsuon, says Mam Sonando was simply doing his job, and planned to air another story to balance the critical interview in the future.
Local human rights groups have accused the Hun Sen government of trying to stifle press freedom. They are worried in particular that Mam Sonando's arrest could lead to the closing of the radio station.
The U.S. Embassy in Phonm Penh issued a statement expressing concern at the arrest and calling for Mam Sonando's release. Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle says the use of Cambodia's judicial system to stifle free speech is disturbing.
"Today's action by the Royal Government of Cambodia against one of Cambodia's leading journalists raises questions about the use of the courts to silence independent voices," he said.
Beehive Radio enjoys a large following, airing the U.S.-sponsored Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, as well as news and roundtable discussions by local rights groups and civic organizations.
The programs can be heard on radios in every neighborhood of the capital and throughout many of the provinces, a testimony to the population's hunger for independent news on human rights and other political issues.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights says the journalist's detention likely was timed to intimidate Hun Sen's opponents, who have been critical of the premier's visit to Vietnam this week.
Hun Sen and Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Kai on Monday signed a controversial supplement to a 1985 border treaty, which Cambodian activists say unfairly ceded land to Vietnam during the decade-long Vietnamese occupation of their country.
Vietnam troops overthrew Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, and occupied the country until 1991.
The supplemental agreement sparked demonstrations in Washington by Cambodian-Americans, and a group of trade unions in Cambodia have vowed to wage a hunger strike to protest the agreement.
Mam Sonando was also jailed in 2002 for broadcasting comments the government claimed incited a riot against Thailand, which left the Thai Embassy and Thai-owned business in ashes. He was freed after then King Norodom Sihanouk granted him amnesty.