Almost every day since 1997, Chea Sam Oeun sat at a small table in front of his house in a quiet street in Phnom Penh and listened to the radio. But now, instead of tuning in to his usual FM station, he’s listening to the same station on a short-wave frequency.
The 72-year-old’s favourite radio programme is Radio Free Asia’s Khmer-language local news show. Mr Sam Oeun said he had listened to RFA’s news programme since about 1997 and tuned in almost every day.
RFA has now shut down its offices in Phnom Penh. The station’s employees in the provinces and Phnom Penh now have no jobs and mostly stay at home. For long-time listeners such as Mr Sam Oeun, other stations supposedly held little interest.
RFA announced it was shutting its Phnom Penh headquarters 19 days before its 20th anniversary in Cambodia.
Mr Sam Oeun said: “I keep listening to this radio station and I have never skipped even a day since listening to it via an antenna on the roof of the house.
“Now I listen to the short-wave version as there are no more good FM radio broadcasts in Phnom Penh.”
He claimed that RFA provided news which no other local radio stations broadcast.
“Even though now there is no office, no FM radio, I keep listening to the short-wave,” he said. “I bought a radio with short-wave channels to listen to RFA. RFA is a good source of information for people.”
The station first opened a small office in Phnom Penh in late September, 1997, and had three Cambodian staff working there at the time. One of the first was Um Sarin, who is also known as Keo Nimol.
He said that when they first opened, they had a converted kitchen on the second floor as their office and from there communicated with their headquarters in Washington, which was often hard because there were no mobile phones or internet then.
Mr Nimol said that when the office opened, their reporters found it difficult to contact sources because senior or high-ranking officials did not know what RFA was and were hesitant to provide information.
He said the reporters at that time chose major political news in the country and the writers also had experience working with foreign news agencies.
“Radio Free Asia was the first radio in Cambodia which broadcast news with reporters’ voices, and added the voices of their sources in their report,” he said. “That made it uniquely different for the listeners.
“We broadcast real information and were impartial, which made the government officials interested any time we broadcast.”
He left radio three years ago, but said he regretted the loss of RFA in Cambodia after 20 years and added that people in the community now had few media channels that give them the opportunity to express their ideas.
Over the years RFA gradually expanded its news programmes to FM stations in the capital and the provinces, making it very popular among the masses.
Lem Piseth an RFA journalist was among some who allegedly were at risk. He and his family left Cambodia for Norway in early 2009 and sought refugee status.
Some of the station’s staff were also accused by government officials of falsifying information, but the station continued to broadcast by organising special programmes during commune or national elections with public forums providing opportunities for political parties to speak about their policies and engage in debates.
Due to the unbalanced broadcasts of certain stories, some government officials had also walked out of live talk shows when things became heated, including National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun and Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.
Council of Ministers spokesman Mr Siphan told Khmer Times that he held no grudge against RFA, but he regretted that the organisation did not respect professionalism and often disseminated fake information, incited citizens to hate the government and disobeyed the laws in Cambodia.
“RFA had more political targets than just providing information to the people,” he said. “The closing of the office was a personal decision without discussion with the tax department. RFA decided to stay outside the law of Cambodia themselves.”
Mr Siphan gave regular interviews and was often a guest speaker on RFA’s live roundtable programme as a representative of the government.
However, he said that the opportunity to explain different issues often turned out to be not what he expected.
“The arrangement of those roundtable programmes was just like preparing to bring government officials to lose their reputations,” he said.
“During the one-hour talk show, the government officials tried to prepare documents to explain things to the people through RFA, but RFA always put two or three anti-government speakers on and gave them more time and the discussions were not a strategic dialogue, but favoured the opposition instead.”
Mr Siphan said the closure of the office in Phnom Penh was regrettable because those who worked there lost their jobs.
But he said RFA should have abided by the laws of Cambodia, like others who do business in the country. They should pay taxes rather than avoid the responsibility, he said.
The closure of RFA’s office in Phnom Penh affected listeners throughout the country who used to tune into FM radio stations carrying RFA’s programmes.
RFA’s 30 reporters alleged that they have also been informed that if they continue to broadcast from within the country, no government spokesmen will speak to them and they maybe arrested.
RFA’s reporters in Cambodia have expressed regret at the closure. Some are reluctant to continue working for RFA. They all need to earn money to provide for their families, they said.
One staff member who asked not to be named said: “I have yet to decide whether to find a new job or to wait for RFA to return because in my mind, I still regret the closure and loved working with this unit that offered new knowledge through professional journalism.”
“The station provided some compensation that we can accept,” he added.
However, things had not always run smoothly at RFA.
In 2009, a number of staff were fired and staged a protest, burning car tyres in front of the station’s office and protesting in front of the US embassy.
One of the sacked staff at that time, Thai Sothea, joined the demonstration.
“We did not agree with the sackings, which happened without any specific reason, so we filed lawsuits seeking justice in accordance with the labour law,” he said.
Mr Sothea did not want to comment on the recent closure of the office because he said it may relate to politics, but added that he regretted seeing his friends at RFA lose their job…