The US Embassy on Wednesday expressed concern that a dispute over the ownership of Radio 90 FM, a formerly pro-Funcinpec station, could result in “the loss of a vital source of news and information for the Cambodian people.”
“The United States believes that equal access to the airwaves is an essential cornerstone of democracy,” the embassy said in a statement.
“The United States will continue to follow closely the outcome of this dispute,” it said.
Radio 90 FM stopped broadcasting its regular news and views programming Saturday, opting for songs and advertisements, amid a legal battle over who owns the station.
On Feb 12, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Kim Sophon ruled that the station belonged to Keo Sophea, the wife of its late director Chhim Bunthorn—earlier identified as Chhim Vansithong, who died of kidney failure in December.
Kim Sophon could not be reached Wednesday.
The ruling, however, was condemned this week by critics who said the station’s subsequent move to scrap news and talk shows silenced programs promoting democracy—particularly shows produced by Kem Sokha, a former Funcinpec senator and now outspoken director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“This is banditry,” Funcinpec Minister of Information Lu Laysreng said on independent Beehive Radio station Tuesday. “I would like to appeal to the judge and prosecutor to re-examine this case.”
Lu Laysreng said the rightful owner of the station was a man named Lay Chhum Sareth, for whom Funcinpec obtained the radio license in 2001.
Since it began broadcasting in 1993, as a Funcinpec-owned station, Radio 90 FM has switched hands numerous times.
But it remained under Funcinpec control until it was shut down during the 1997 factional fighting. The following year, Khieu Kanharith, a CPP secretary of state for the Ministry of Information, signed an order allowing Radio 90 FM to be opened by Chhim Bunthorn.
In 2001, according to Funcinpec Deputy Secretary-General Ok Socheat, royalist party president Prince Norodom Ranariddh bought the station from Chhim Bunthorn for $30,000. However, no official paperwork was made in the deal.
In a document dated June 2001, Prince Ranariddh transferred his ownership rights to a private company run by Lay Chhum Sareth, naming him the station’s director. The handover was recognized by Lu Laysreng.
In another document signed March 27, 2003, Lu Laysreng ordered another man named Nhem Sophana to replace Lay Chhum Sareth.
Chhim Bunthorn remained as a staff member throughout the change-overs.
In a counter-complaint to the court, dated Sunday, Nhem Sophana called for the removal of Chhim Bunthorn’s wife, rejecting the court’s initial order.
Chhim Bunthorn’s wife appeared on Radio 90 FM Wednesday, defending her stake in the station.
“I did not rob anyone or any party’s property, but just took mine back,” she said.
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