Freedom Of Expression Groups Demand Release Of Cambodian Journalist

A few dozen members of the Democrats Association gathered at the Phnom Penh court while Mam Sonando was questioned. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Three leading freedom of expression organizations are protesting the recent arrest of Mam Sanando, the director of Beehive Radio, a Cambodian independent radio station. Rights groups ARTICLE 19, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance issued a joint letter strongly urging the Cambodian government to immediately release him and drop all charges against him.

Sonando, 70 years old, was arrested at his home on July 15th on accusations of attempting an “insurrectionary movement”, and was subsequently charged under six sections of the penal code. If convicted, Sonando faces up to 30 years in prison. The groups believe that he was arrested for the legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of expression.

Sonando is a veteran critic of Hun Sen and his rule who has been arrested twice before for non-violent political activities. He owns Beehive Radio, the most outspoken and politically independent radio station in Cambodia. Electronic media in Cambodia are almost entirely controlled by the government, such as Apsara TV and Bayon TV, the latter being under the control of Hun Sen’s daughter. Sonando is also the president of the Association of Democrats, a small nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights and democracy education.

Sonando’s arrest came two days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s departure from the country after attending the annual ASEAN meeting.

In the letter, the groups wrote: “We voice our concerns over the arrest and persecution of Sonando based on the highly questionable circumstances surrounding his arrest: On June 22nd, Sonando was at the International Criminal Court in the Hague to cover the presentation of a communication by the Khmer People Power Movement to the Office of the Prosecutor on alleged crimes against humanity committed by the Cambodian government. Sonando’s report was aired over Beehive Radio on June 25th. On the next day, Your Excellency Prime Minister publicly called for his arrest.”

They are also concerned by the denial of Sonando’s request for bail despite clear signs that he has no plans to flee the country, evidenced by the fact that he had willingly returned to Cambodia fully aware of arrest threats made against him. The denial of his bail application is particularly unacceptable, they said, as there are growing concerns over the health of Sonando, who has reportedly fallen ill in detention.

This is not the first time that Sonando has run into trouble with the government. He was imprisoned in 2003 for allegedly announcing false information, inciting people to discriminate, and inciting people to commit crimes. These charges and arrest stemmed from an anonymous caller to Beehive Radio’s public opinion segment saying that he, the caller, heard of attacks upon the Khmer embassy in Bangkok. Sonando was again arrested in 2005 under charges of defamation, incitement and disinformation for an interview on border issues aired over Beehive Radio.

The groups also said that as Cambodia is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Cambodia is legally obliged to uphold the right to freedom of expression, a fundamental right which is also enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution.

For these reasons, the groups call upon the Cambodian government to immediately release Mam Sonando and to drop all charges against him. Furthermore, if the trial were to proceed, they urge the government to accord Sonando his right to a fair trial as guaranteed under Cambodian law and the government’s international obligations. They also encourage the authorities to ensure the well-being of Sonando, especially in view of reports of his deteriorating health condition in detention.

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