Cambodian minister blames China after refusing opposition figure a licence to broadcast TV

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 January, 2014, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 31 January, 2014, 2:37pm

Watch: Police use smoke grenades against demonstrators protesting government licence decision

Cambodia’s government has blamed a flood of applications from a Chinese state television network as the reason for refusing a licence to broadcast TV to one of the country’s most prominent political activists, who planned to use it to provide a counter-narrative to Premier Hun Sen’s almost three decades in power.

Mam Sonando, a long-time journalist who served more than six months of a 20-year prison sentence on insurrection charges last year, will not be granted a licence to broadcast because up to 80 channels have been allocated to a Chinese state television network, the Southeast Asian nation’s Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said in an interview on national station TVK on Tuesday.

The rejection of Mam Sonando’s third application in four years for a television licence has yet to be formally issued by his ministry, he told the South China Morning Post on Friday.

In the interview, reported by the Phnom Penh Post, Khieu Kanharith added that Mam Sonando, 73, was too close to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which boycotted last year’s elections over vote-rigging concerns. Growing discontent over Hun Sen’s 28 years in power has sparked protests since the elections and has led the government to impose a ban on demonstrations in the capital Phnom Penh.

Last week, at least eight people were injured when a protest in support of Mam Sonando’s licence application was broken up by military police.

All existing television stations are aligned with the government. Mam Sonando has been running the opposition-aligned Beehive Radio station since 1993. He says it reaches about 60 per cent of the nation’s territory. The Ministry of Information has denied his request to expand the reach of his radio station five times since 2005, he has said.

Minister Khieu Kanharith said TVK had signed a deal with Yunnan’s provincial broadcaster to develop a television network and did not have the capacity to process Mam Sonando’s application.

According to a preliminary agreement from 2011, the provincial broadcaster is committed to bringing digital television to “every household” in the impoverished nation of 15 million people so that “local people could gain a more real, comprehensive understanding of China and improve the spread and influence of Chinese culture.”

China is Cambodia’s third-largest trade partner after neighbours Vietnam and Thailand. Earlier this month, the country’s senate inaugurated its new office buildings, construction of which was funded by Chinese loans.

Mam Sonando said he would challenge the decision. “The reason they gave to the public is a farce,” he said. “I will re-apply for another licence after the Chinese New Year. Cambodia’s people have a right to [an] independent media.”

The Ministry of Information could not be reached for comment on Friday morning.