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Editor arrested, charged, radio station ordered to stop broadcasting in run-up to elections

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Cambodian rights and free expression advocates are anxious and concerned in the run- up to the general elections scheduled for late July 2008, sounding the alarm over recent attacks on the media that threaten the press and the open conduct of campaigns.

The Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ), a partner of SEAPA, has expressed grave concern over reports that on 28 May the Cambodian Ministry of Information (MOI) shut down a newly-established private radio station in Kratie province, 315 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh, on grounds that the radio owner had not complied with its operating contract with the ministry.

After securing permission from the MOI, Radio Angkor Ratha FM 105.25 went on air on 15 May, and opened its airtime to the full range of Cambodia's political parties, including the Samrainsy Party, the Human Rights Party, the Norodom Ranariddh Party, FUNCINPEC and the League for Democracy Party. Barely two weeks later, on 28 May, the station was ordered to halt its broadcasts, allegedly for violating provisions in its operating contract with the Ministry.

Ten days later, on 8 June, human rights groups reported the arrest of Dam Sith, editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh newspaper, "Moneaksekar Khmer".

In a joint statement, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), and the Cambodian League for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (LICADHO) denounced the arrest as "politically motivated."

Dam Sith has been charged with defamation and disinformation. CCHR says he has been "sent to Prey Sar prison for pre-trial detention."

The ADHOC-CCHR-LICADHO statement says "Dam Sith was charged following a complaint against him by Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong, regarding an article published in 'Moneaksekar Khmer' on 18 April. The article reported on a speech made by Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) president Sam Rainsy, at a Khmer Rouge victims' commemoration on 17 April, in which he made comments about several government ministers. Hor Namhong subsequently filed a court complaint against both Sam Rainsy and Dam Sith." The rights groups say that the arrest of Dam Sith betrays the Cambodian judiciary's "continued disregard for the civil provisions of the 1995 Press Law, in favor of using the older UNTAC Criminal Code of 1992".

CAPJ, CCHR, LICADHO, and ADHOC all linked the closure of the Angkor Ratha 105.25 radio station and the arrest of Dam Sith to general elections scheduled for 27 July. All the groups warned that the recent developments could have a chilling effect on Cambodia's free press, and restrict the free and fair conducting of party campaigns and the overall elections.

SEAPA, a coalition of free press advocacy groups from the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, joins the Cambodian groups in calling for the release of Dam Sith, the lifting of the closure order against Angkor Ratha, and the Cambodian government's assurance of respect for free expression and press freedom in Cambodia. Such freedom is crucial to the credible conducting of elections, and must be assured even beyond the heated political season.

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