Television Stations Open Prince’s Trial a Day Early

On the eve of the trial of deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, television screens were filled with incriminating footage of the prince’s supporters in action during July’s factional fighting.

The videotape, seized from the prince’s supporters in July, was aired Monday night by all six Cambodian television stations, after distribution by officials of the state-owned channel TVK.

Footage from the tape, apparently shot by Funcinpec members loyal to the prince, shows senior party officials apparently planning their strategy for the fighting and depicts the prince’s troops marching into combat in the capital.

TVK Director Him Suong said Tuesday he had distributed copies of the videotape to private television stations for broadcast Monday, saying only that “the higher people” had ordered him to do so.

Him Suong said the videotape showed “the truth about what happened during the fighting.” The timing of Monday’s blanket broadcasting, he said, was aimed “to prove hard evidence to the court to sentence Prince Ranariddh and the extremists.”

An official at TV9 station, formerly owned by Funcinpec but now officially neutral, said TVK officials had ordered his station to broadcast the tape, but said he was unaware of the reasons behind it.

Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith denied that his ministry had issued an edict for the footage to be aired. But he said he had asked television stations to broadcast a different videotape about the fighting on Tuesday evening, the night before the trial.

The second tape, he said, is a government documentary with commentary explaining the fighting as a government effort to expel Khmer Rouge forces from the capital.

The videotape taken from the Funcinpec footage, first aired shortly after July’s fighting, has been criticized by human rights officials as offering a distorted view of the battles that led to the prince’s ouster.

In one portion, apparently shot with a small hidden camera in the prince’s office, cabinet chief Ly Thuch, wearing a pistol in a shoulder holster, is seen telephoning journalists to report a rumor that the prince’s adversary, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, had been killed by his bodyguards.

Other scenes depict Prince Ranariddh’s top military commander, Nhiek Bun Chhay, leading soldiers toward the center of Phnom Penh with the sound of mortar shells and tanks firing in the background.

The Phnom Penh Military Court is to try the prince in absentia today on charges of illegally buying and transporting weapons that the government says were intended to arm “anarchic forces” intent on staging a coup d’etat.

The prince and three senior aides, including Chao Sambath, a military commander who was killed following the July fighting, will be tried March 17 on separate charges of colluding with the outlawed Khmer Rouge.

Kampuon Keomony, the manager of the privately owned TV3 station, defended the tape.

“This is true fact, not fiction,” he said. “We want the human rights organizations to understand the facts,”

Observers and human rights officials said Tuesday the timing and nature of the broadcast was evidence of the government using the media for propaganda.

“Because of Prince Ranariddh’s trial, they want to saturate the public with the government’s view of what happened on July 5 and 6,” the official said.

He added that the blanket coverage was a disturbing sign of the media’s lack of independence, especially given the need for equal media access to ensure free and fair elections scheduled for July.

“It makes it more obvious than ever that the broadcast media is politically controlled,” the official said. “How can anyone say the broadcast media is impartial when all six channels are carrying the same broadcast, and at prime time?”

(Additional reporting by Catherine Philp and Agence France-Presse)

© 1998 – 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.