Queen of the Airwaves

By Kyaw Zwa Moe

IT IS the most popular radio station in Cambodia, but Beehive FM105 is constantly fighting to keep buzzing.

Since the radio station begun airing its programs in 1996, the Ministry of Information has repeatedly ordered it not to rebroadcast newscasts and programs of Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) – an order Beehive has chosen to ignore.

In 1997, Beehive was ransacked and looted by a mob of people wearing military uniforms. In 1998, Beehive founder and owner Mam Sonando fled to neighboring Thailand after the government shut down the station, accusing it of failing to report that year’s national elections correctly. The station was allowed to resume broadcast in 1999, but in 2003, Mam Sonando found himself behind bars on charges of airing false information, inciting acts of racism, and instigating people to riot.

“I have tried to keep my station alive (despite of) whatever happens to me,” says Mam Sonando, who is in his early 60s. “As a result, I have become an enemy of the government.”

Beehive, known locally as Sambok Khmum, is widely considered to be the only truly independent radio station in Cambodia, where majority of the population rely on radio for news and information. According to Mam Sonando, about two-thirds of the country’s 13 million people are able to tune in to his radio station, which has received financial support from donor agencies in the United States.

Stinging broadcasts
Beehive owes much of its popularity to its replays of news from RFA and VOA and its critical pieces on the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. About three hours of its daily total airtime are devoted to VOA and RFA Khmer-language feeds.

Reacting to the government’s efforts to ban rebroadcasts of VOA and RFA material, critics point out there is no law requiring radio stations to obtain official permission to broadcast feeds from abroad. They say the 1993 constitution empowers the media to work for democracy. Mam Sonando himself says, “The government violates the constitution.”

“We’re not trying to attack the government,” he adds. “What we are doing is just reporting about what is really going on here to our people.”

But it’s obvious that there are powerful people who are stung by Beehive’s broadcasts. Mam Sonando says that the 1997 attack on his station was done by troops loyal to then Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. Beehive’s building was also looted. Mam Sonando says the government later pledged to honor his claim for $60,000 as compensation for the attack, but up to now he has yet to see any money.

The Buddhist businessman received permission from the Ministry of Information to broadcast in 1995, three years after he returned home from Paris, where he had studied and worked for about three decades.

Mam Sonando says he has to be loyal to his job and honest to his people. Fear would affect his ability to run the radio, he maintains.

Strength from public support
But it’s not always easy to keep a brave front, and his brief stint in jail in 2003 was obviously not pleasant at all. The charges against him arose from a broadcast report that the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok had been attacked by local people angry at anti-Thai demonstrations in Phnom Penh.

Those demonstrations, in turn, had been sparked by reports in Khmer-language newspapers citing a Thai actress as saying Cambodia’s Angkor Wat really belonged to Thailand. The actress later denied saying such a thing, yet no action was taken against the Cambodian newspapers that carried the first – and false — report. By contrast, Mam Sonando was arrested on the day his radio aired its report on how Thais were reacting to what was happening in Cambodia.

Local and international human rights groups condemned Mam Sonando’s arrest and
called for his immediate release. He was freed after a few days in jail, but the charges have never been dropped.

At the time, Mam Sonando said, “I am proud to be in prison in the interest of the people’s viewpoint”. He says he still stands by what he had said then.

“If the authorities don’t like you … you’ll be put in jail,” he says. “Even though you don’t make any mistake.”

Public support for Beehive is strong, though. When Mam Sonando appealed for funds in 2001 and 2003 to keep the station alive, he received thousands of dollars in contributions from listeners from all walks of life. “People donate to the station because it speaks the truth, defending those who are unjustly abused by people in power,” he says.

The station now has an upgraded five-kilowatt transmitter, but Mam Sonando is not satisfied. He wants to make the station more powerful and win more listeners.

“Beehive is neither anti-government nor pro-opposition,” he says. “But don’t think either that it is neutral. In reality, it is the people’s radio.”

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