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Freedom of Media in Cambodia Threatened, says Rights Groups - 2003-02-11

International human rights groups are saying that Cambodia's detention of two journalists for their alleged roles in recent riots threatens freedom of speech as the country prepares for national elections.

Cambodian authorities Tuesday freed the journalists on bail. The newspaper editor and radio station owner were jailed last month in connection with anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh.

Their release comes after the independent Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee sent a letter to King Norodom Sihanouk, who passed on the request to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the arrests of Mam Sonando and In Chan Sivutha, along with the closure of the country's only independent radio station set an "ominous tone" ahead of national elections in July.

The organizations also said on Tuesday they fear that government critics, opposition party members and more journalists may be targeted for arrest.

The two journalists were arrested after mobs attacked and set fire to the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh and damaged several Thai-owned businesses on January 29. They were reacting to rumors reported in the local news media that a Thai actress had said Cambodia's cultural icon - the Angkor Wat temple complex -belonged to Thailand. The actress has denied making the comments.

Somchai Homlaor, with the Bangkok human rights group Asia Forum, said the arrest of the two journalists appeared to be a tool to silence opposition. "The arrests may be come a trick of the candidates and the parties in the upcoming elections," he said.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said they were concerned that Mom Sonando was arrested to shut down his radio station, Beehive, before the presidential election. Beehive is the only independent station in the country.

The station is accused of broadcasting false reports that Thai protesters in Bangkok had killed Cambodian officials.

In Chan Sivutha, editor of the Light of Angkor newspaper, was accused of publishing a false report about the actress's alleged comments.

The rights groups say that while the journalists were singled out, scant attention has been paid to what they called inflammatory remarks made by officials. They mentioned remarks made by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The rights organizations say the pattern of suppressing free speech threatens good governance and democracy in Cambodia.