PHNON PENH — Independent radio station owner Mam Sonando is in a Cambodian prison awaiting trial on charges of insurrection. He was Beehive Radio’s sole reporter, and its main on-air personality. But while he is gone from the airwaves, he has not been forgotten - especially among the station’s loyal listeners.
A few days a week, radio station owner Mam Sonando would go on air to talk to callers. Now, the station and its listeners have to do without him, as he sits in prison across town.
The DJ who's taking calls says Beehive is carrying on.
“There is no effect to the station's operations. It's a personal matter for the president. All the staff comes to work normally. Many staffers respect the station rules; we're not afraid at all,” Phiev said.
Beehive is one of the few independent media outlets in Cambodia, where many stations are controlled by political parties. Its broadcasts have won praise from rights activists for championing causes that other stations ignore. It also carries Voice of America programming.
Callers used to have conversations with the owner about social issues and injustice. Now, Mam Sonando has become the subject of the shows he once hosted.
“I ask the government to release Mam Sonando, offer him freedom. We are his guarantors, we are 100,000 people and we will take his place in prison,” one caller said.
This is a somewhat familiar situation for Mam Sonando, who was imprisoned twice before for his reporting. This time he faces up to 30 years in prison for allegedly attempting to form a secession movement.
His supporters say he is being targeted for criticism of the Cambodian government and of rights abuses by the powerful. Prime Minister Hun Sen dismisses the allegation.
Mam Sonando's wife, Din Phanara, has taken over leading the station. She says his absence has been a big change.
“Because Mam Sonando is like the heart of the station,” she said.
She is dismissive of the court case against her husband - as well as even the idea that he could be planning a secession in rural Kratie in Cambodia’s northeast.
“How do we lead an insurrection just with two, three farmers earning a living feeding chickens and pigs? How do we secede? It is not true. It is not possible,” she said.
The court has not yet set a date for trial. And as Beehive goes on without its primary voice, the man behind it sits in pretrial detention, and his supporters worry about his health.