NEWS: '90 FM' OWNERSHIP DISPUTE DISRUPTS NEWS/TALK FORMAT IN CAMBODIA by GRANT GODDARD

www.grantgoddard.co.uk March 2004

Phnom Penh station “90 FM” is at the centre of an ownership dispute which has led to two court cases and serious disruption of the station’s news/talk format. The dispute results from the death by kidney failure of station director Chhim Bunthorn on 2 December last year. Bunthorn’s widow Keo Sothea issued a complaint in Phnom Penh Municipal Court that a man named Nhem Sophana had taken over the station, and the presiding judge ruled in her favour on 12 February. After the court verdict, Bunthorn’s brother Touch Kongkea told The Cambodia Daily that “our 90 FM will broadcast only songs and spot advertisements.” From 14 February, back-to-back music and advertisements replaced regular talk shows by local radio personalities such as Kem Sokha, the outspoken director of the Cambodian Centre For Human Rights. A few days later, 90 FM broadcast every few hours an emotional prerecorded 10-minute plea by newly proclaimed owner Keo Sothea for listeners to understand the problems she had faced at the station since her husband died: “I did not rob anyone or any party’s property, but just took mine back.” On 18 February, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement that it would “continue to follow closely the outcome of this dispute” over 90 FM which could lead to “the loss of a vital source of news and information for the Cambodian people.” The statement asserted: “The United States believes that equal access to the airwaves is an essential cornerstone of democracy.” After 90 FM dropped his talk show, Kem Sokha told another Phnom Penh station Radio Beehive: “It means they prevent my voice speaking to the listeners regarding the problem of freedom, democracy and human rights.” Lu Laysreng, Minister of Information for the opposition FUNCINPEC political party, told Radio Beehive: “This is banditry. I would like to appeal to the judge and prosecutor to re-examine this case.” Deposed station director Nhem Sophana filed an immediate countercomplaint, which was heard in the Municipal Court on 26 February. Judge Hing Thirith revoked the court’s earlier ruling that had favoured Keo Sothea, declared that fellow judge Kim Sophoan’s decision had been “wrong”, and ruled that Nhem Sophana was henceforth the station’s rightful owner, on the basis of documented evidence. An “urgent affair verdict” was issued, following a request from Nhem Sophana’s lawyer that the court remove Keo Sothea from the station premises. That afternoon, a dozen police and court officials, accompanied by two fire trucks, arrived at 90 FM to enforce the order. Keo Sothea took to the airwaves, sobbing and hysterical, asking listeners for help: “If anything happens, me and my four children will kill and burn ourselves here in this radio station.” Despite these threats, officials took the station off the air peacefully at 3.30pm. By the evening, the station had resumed broadcasts and was apparently in the hands of a FUNCINPEC-appointed trustee. Deposed Keo Sothea, who said she would appeal the court’s latest decision, was arrested the following day in connection with an outstanding warrant from last December for alleged financial fraud. She was released on bail, though no date has been set for her next court appearance. The subsequent resumption of 90 FM’s news/talk format was welcomed by human rights activist Kem Sokha, who told Radio Free Asia: “I am very pleased my Centre [the Cambodian Centre For Human Rights] is able to
News: '90 FM' Ownership Dispute Disrupts News/Talk Format In Cambodia ©2004 Grant Goddard page 2

continue my programme for our people to listen to.” Jackson Cox, country director of the US-based International Republican Institute which sponsors Sokha’s show, added: “I am very happy that the ‘Voice of Democracy’ programme is now back on the air. Their programme is not only extremely popular across the country, but it is very effective. The Cambodian Centre For Human Rights is talking with people and strengthening democracy in Cambodia.” Since its launch in 1993 by the then governing FUNCINPEC party (National United Front for an Independent, Peaceful and Co-operative Cambodia, led by then Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh), 90 FM has had a tumultuous history. It shut down in 1997 when FUNCINPEC lost power in a violent coup to the Cambodian People’s Party until, the following year, the new government’s Ministry of Information signed an order allowing the station to be re-opened by Chhim Bunthorn. According to FUNCINPEC, Prince Ranariddh bought the station back from Bunthorn in early 2001 for US$30,000 though no paperwork exists to confirm the sale. In a document dated June 2001 and countersigned by FUNCINPEC’s Lu Laysreng, Prince Ranariddh then transferred ownership to a private company owned by Lay Chhum Sareth, who was named station director. A subsequent letter from Laysreng dated March 2003 ordered Sareth to be replaced as station director by Nhem Sophana, who is now at the centre of the dispute with Bunthorn’s widow. It appears that Bunthorn remained a staff member at 90 FM throughout these management changes. Cambodia’s Ministry of Information would comment only that it was unaware of the ownership dispute, but has recognised Nhem Sophana as the station’s director for nearly a year. Another pro-FUNCINPEC Phnom Penh radio station, FM 90.5 Ta Prohm, was in the news last year when, on 18th October, its reporter Chour Chetharith was shot in the head and killed by two gunmen as he left his car to enter the station’s studio at 8.20am. The gunmen escaped by motorbike and have never been apprehended. Only days earlier, Prime Minister Hun Sen (of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party) had warned FM 90.5 to stop criticising his speeches. Phnom Penh presently has 17 FM stations, including full-time relays of the BBC World Service and Radio France International, serving a capital city of less than one million people. Although the law forbids political parties from direct ownership of licences, many locally-owned stations have affiliations to such parties, while others are owned by a joint venture involving Phnom Penh Municipality, including Love FM, the only local English-language station that plays all Western pop music.
[First published in 'Radio World' as 'Tumultuous Times At 90 FM', August 2004, p.5]

Grant Goddard is a media analyst / radio specialist / radio consultant with thirty years of experience in the broadcasting industry, having held senior management and consultancy roles within the commercial media sector in the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. Details at http://www.grantgoddard.co.uk

News: '90 FM' Ownership Dispute Disrupts News/Talk Format In Cambodia ©2004 Grant Goddard

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