Phnom Penh (Cambodia herald) - In the dozens of international reports on the jailing of Mam Sonando for 20 years earlier this month, the Beehive Radio station owner seems to be wearing many hats. For some, like Agence France-Presse, he's an activist. Others such as Voice of America describe him as a broadcaster. But for others like the New York Times and the BBC, he's a journalist. Hold on, a journalist?
WILL THE REAL MAM SONANDO PLEASE STAND UP
Apart from being a radio station owner who does his own talk-back programs and rebroadcasts material by the US government-financed Voice of America and the US congress-funded Radio Free Asia, who is Mam Sonando?
According to the Beehive Radio website, Mam Sonando was born on February 13, 1942, about 10 months into the first reign of King Norodom Sihanouk during the Japanese occupation. The small village where he grew up in a family of nine was Kampong Siem in the southeastern part of Kampong Cham, the website says.
It seems Mam Sonando had an early brush with the law, in this case French law. Arriving in France in 1964 with a small bag of clothes and 500 francs in savings, his plan was "just to look for and maintain a decent job," the website says.
But when France stopped letting Cambodians work in France under a reciprocal deal with Cambodia, "he was not able to maintain his daily job." As a result, "he had to work in fear, hiding from the government officials, and switching from one job to another, working long hours at a factory, or in the back of a restaurant."
FROM ILLEGAL WORKER TO SUCCESSFUL BUSINESSMAN IN FRANCE
After saving enough money by working illegally, Mam Sonando enrolled at a technical school where he studied photography and film-making for two years. He then did further studies at the University of Paris.
After graduating, he worked for "a few photography companies" before setting up his own restaurant in Paris. Known as Apsara, the Cambodian restaurant allowed him to become a "successful entrepreneur ... enjoying the luxury of traveling and continuing his entrepreneurship to a new level."
Mam Sonando returned to Cambodia in 1994 but failed to enjoy the business success he had in France. He soon found that "to have a successful business in Cambodia, money alone is not enough." A man like him needed "government officials with power" to run a business smoothly and efficiently. So he "sold all his businesses" to apply for a radio license in 1995, convinced that "the people of Cambodia should have a voice that is not controled by the government".
BROADCASTER IN CAMBODIA
Beehive Radio started broadcasting in 1996 and the rest of Mam Sonando's story is better known. Amid intense political tensions between the two government coalition parties in early 1997, his house was looted by unidentified people. And after broadcasting protests against election results in 1998, his radio license was suspended amid accusations of insurrection. Broadcasts resumed six months later after a new government was formed, with programs from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia added in 1999.
Mam Sonando's first serious brush with Cambodian law came during anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh in 2003 when the Thai Embassy was attacked. After broadcasting false remarks that Thais were attacking the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok, he was arrested and kept in detention for 11 days.
In a second incident 2005, Mam Sonando was arrested and charged with defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen. He was released after three months of detention.
In the latest case, he was arrested in July and charged with being ringleader of an attempted secession in Kratie in May. He was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison on October 1.
The Beehive Radio website skips over what is arguably one of the most interesting aspects of Mam Sonando's career. In 1998, the broadcaster himself ran in the National Assembly elections. The obscure party failed to win a single seat, however, and has since disappeared from the Cambodian political landscape.
Looking back on Mam Sonando's career over the past 50 years, we can now see that he was an illegal factory worker and dishwasher in France before becoming a student. He later worked for several photographic companies before opening a restaurant and becoming a successful businessman in France. He was unable to replicate his business success in Cambodia, however, and opted instead to become a radio broadcaster who is now a failed politician hosting talk-back radio programs sometimes seen as inflammatory or defamatory.
Mam Sonando is a broadcaster and also an activist but he is not a journalist. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, a journalist is a "person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television." News in this case is defined as "newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events." Mam Sonando does not prepare news for broadcast. He comments on the news which in Cambodia mostly comes from journalists working for newspapers.
If anything, Mam Sonando is a "media personality" in the worst tradition of "shock jocks" in countries like the United States and Australia. Such talk-back radio hosts typically command big audiences, attracting uneducated listeners with deliberately exaggerated political comments that many educated listeners find offensive. Mam Sonando's latest case may or may not have something to do with freedom of speech. But it has nothing to do with freedom of the press.