POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 14, 2014
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia » As freedom fighters go, Mam Sonando stands out as somewhat eccentric. The entrance to his radio station, which is described by his loyal supporters as Cambodia's only truly independent broadcaster, is decorated like a nightclub, complete with colored lights and a disco ball. It also has at least four Buddhist shrines.
"I am addicted to listening to music," said Sonando, 72.
Among his favorite artists to play at top volume are Lil Wayne, Eminem and Jay Z.
Sonando is the founder and intrepid owner of Beehive Radio. He is also a thorn in the side of Cambodia's authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, who has been in power close to three decades.
Sonando has been arrested three times over reports on his radio program that offended the government. The third arrest, two years ago on charges of insurrection, led to a prison term of 20 years, a ruling that was overturned — amid considerable pressure from Western governments — and replaced with a five-year suspended sentence for inciting unrest.
Sonando's following appears to have grown hand-in-hand with his legal problems.
In January, he and his supporters gathered in front of the Ministry of Information to demand that Beehive be given a television license and that the radio station be allowed to expand its broadcasting reach in Cambodia. The riot police broke up the demonstration and lunged toward him with electric batons. Sonando was spared injury when an entourage of supporters surrounded him and ushered him away.
"I will help him whatever he does," said Mech Samnang, one of the supporters who suffered electric shocks as he tried to shield Sonando during the clash. "You could compare him to my own father."
Over the past year, opposition has been building to Hun Sen, who until recently enjoyed unquestioned political primacy. The main opposition party has boycotted Parliament since disputed elections last July.
Sonando has been a fixture at many of the protests staged against the government, some of which have drawn tens of thousands of people.
At turns journalist, activist and politician, Sonando says he is fighting to "protect people who have been victimized." His talk show on Beehive Radio regularly discusses topics ignored by most of the Cambodian media: the illegal seizure of land, the destruction of the country's forests and corruption.
"I believe there will be change," Sonando said in an interview in his office, which is both his home and the headquarters of Beehive. "Wherever there is injustice there will be a struggle that emerges from it."
A Cambodian and a U.S. flag frame his desk, the latter a symbol of the "premise of the United States and ideals of its people," he said.
Four dogs roam the compound of the radio station, including two large German shepherds. Sonando is a father figure to his 22 employees and reads poems on the air between commentaries about oppression in the country.
During an interview, he also mentioned parenthetically that he had been an "erotic photographer" when he lived in France, where he studied and later sought refuge, in 1975, during the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. He has dual French and Cambodian citizenship and returned to Cambodia in the 1990s.
"He's such an interesting personality," said Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization in Phnom Penh.
With an outspokenness and a predilection for on-air rants, "he's almost like a Cambodian Rush Limbaugh," Virak said, "except that he doesn't have any particular ideology."
Sonando formed a political party in the 1990s and ran for a seat in the National Assembly, but he lost and disbanded the party.
As for Beehive radio, "There's nothing else out there that is so critical of the government," Virak said.
On a recent broadcast, Sonando complained for half an hour that a local official in a southwestern province "still had the mentality of the Khmer Rouge" and did not allow him to distribute donations to villagers.
In many ways, Sonando embodies the difficulties of independent media in Cambodia. Soon after the radio station began broadcasting, he said, people dressed in police and military uniforms "looted" his home.
Beehive is powered by generators, because Sonando is afraid that if he connects to the national power grid the government might pull the plug.
The station, which began broadcasting in 1996, gets its name from a question Sonando remembers his late father asking when he was a boy: Why can't Cambodian society work in harmony, like a beehive?
Beehive Radio, he says, survives from month to month. It needs around $16,000 a month to run, and most of that comes from fees paid by outside organizations that want airtime for their own programs, including a show sympathetic to the government.
Sonando says the rest of his income comes from donations, mainly from Cambodians abroad. He travels at least once a year to France and stays at his son's apartment in the Paris suburb of Choisy-le-Roi.
As a measure of the restrictions on the media in Cambodia, the country fell sharply to 143rd place of 180 countries in last year's World Press Freedom Index, a ranking calculated by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. This year, the country is ranked 144.
Yet Sonando's survival, despite all the hurdles, also symbolizes the nuances of the tug of war between independent media in Cambodia and Hun Sen. The government may be authoritarian, but Cambodia is a freewheeling society where a full clamp on dissent seems unimaginable.
Although television stations and Cambodian-language newspapers are almost entirely controlled by Hun Sen and the business tycoons allied with him, the Internet is uncensored (although on at least one occasion political sites have reportedly been blocked), and two foreign-owned English-language newspapers, The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post, are owned by foreigners and regularly run reports critical of the government.
Beehive Radio sells airtime to Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, both of which are sponsored by the U.S. government, and Radio France Internationale, part of the broadcasting arm of the French government.
Sonando says he has submitted six unsuccessful requests to the government to expand the range of the station, which he estimates reaches 60 percent of the country. He has also formally requested a license for a television station.
Khieu Kanharith, the Cambodian minister of information, said in a telephone interview that Beehive's request for greater radio coverage was impossible on technical grounds.
"We don't have enough space now in Cambodia, so we rejected his request," he said.
The radio dial is already full, Kanharith said, citing 150 private and around 17 state-owned stations in the country.
Sonando says he submitted his first request to expand his coverage nearly a decade ago - long before other stations. He says the Cambodian public is more politically aware these days and will not accept for much longer the government's attempts to block independent voices.
Yet he says, perhaps not entirely convincingly, that he does not want to take sides in politics and claims to be critical of both the government and the opposition.
"I will be on the side of anyone who will lead and respect the people's will and the constitution," he said, with the phrasing of the politician he once sought to be. "I am biased toward the people."\
Thomas Fuller, New York Times