Media freedom: Closure of independent media outlet further erodes Cambodia’s democracy
In February, in a move greeted with widespread criticism, the Cambodian government closed down one of the country’s last remaining independent media outlets, Voice of Democracy (VOD). Commentators describe this as the latest in a series of actions that are weakening democracy in Cambodia. Democracy cannot exist without an independent media, says Dana Green, Chair of the IBA Media Law Committee. ‘The government's closure of VOD is clearly a violation of basic principles of freedom of the press,’ she says.
VOD, created by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in 2003 and later run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), was an online media portal that offered coverage, in both English and Khmer, of Cambodian news, politics and human rights.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced via a statement in February that VOD’s licence would be revoked after it published what the country’s leader called an ‘attack’ on himself and his son and heir apparent, Hun Manet, which he believed had damaged the government’s ‘dignity and reputation’.
A story published on VOD earlier that week had quoted a government spokesperson as saying that Hun Manet had signed an aid agreement in response to the earthquake in Turkey instead of his father, an act that Hun Manet denies. As joint chief of staff and deputy commander for the country’s armed forces, this allegation would suggest that Hun Manet had acted outside of his remit.
CCIM updated the story and wrote a letter to the cabinet expressing ‘regret’, while clarifying that the quote used in the story had come from a government spokesman. Deeming the outlet’s response ‘unacceptable’, Hun Sen urged foreign donors to rescind VOD funding and told employees to find work elsewhere. ‘Its demise means that the government effectively controls all national TV and radio stations broadcasting in Khmer as well as national Khmer-language newspapers’, explains Josef Benedict, a civic space research officer covering the Asia-Pacific region for CIVICUS Monitor, which provides data on the state of civil society and freedoms in 196 countries.
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The government's closure of Voice of Democracy is clearly a violation of basic principles of freedom of the press
Chair, IBA Media Law Committee
The country’s 1995 Law on the Media endorses a free press, yet Cambodia ranks at 142 out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index. The closure of VOD, according to rights groups, is in direct conflict with Cambodian media law, but it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.
The Cambodian government has a reputation for eliminating civil dissent and opposition; a point demonstrated in early March when the opposition leader, Kem Sokha, was imprisoned for 27 years on treason charges. UN experts criticised Sokha’s trial and conviction as ‘further evidence of an ongoing pattern of the misapplication of laws to target political opponents and any critic of the Government’ in a statement in early March. ‘Repressive laws are routinely misused to restrict civic freedoms and criminalise human rights defenders, trade unionists, youth activists, journalists, opposition politicians and other critical voices’, says Benedict.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, journalists in Cambodia are increasingly being subjected to various forms of harassment and pressure, as well as violence. In 2014, two journalists were murdered in relation to their coverage of illegal logging and deforestation, a crime for which three men were charged.
Meanwhile, three journalists are currently imprisoned. ‘In recent years, the Hun Sen regime has revoked licences of critical news outlets, purged newsrooms and targeted journalists, leaving the independent media sector devastated’, says Benedict. He adds that Cambodians are forced therefore to consume news from more pro-government outlets.
The Cambodian government did not respond to Global Insight’s request for comment.
VOD, explains Ou Virak, a human rights activist and the Founder and President of independent Cambodian think tank Future Forum, reaches the masses and is where the core opposition base accesses their news. It’s notable that the move to close VOD comes with July’s elections on the horizon. Prior to the 2017 elections, the Cambodia Daily newspaper was shuttered while the Phnom Penh Post was sold off. ‘All of these factors do seem to be undermining the democratic process ahead of these elections’, says Green.
Benedict says Hun Sen’s regime must be called out on its abuses. ‘Governments must take increasing steps through embassies and representations to respond to the attacks on press freedom and the targeting of human rights defenders and activists, including by voicing concerns with the authorities, attending trials, issuing statements and visiting activists in detention’, he says. The EU, Benedict adds, could consider withdrawing Cambodia’s Everything But Arms privileges, which allows the country duty-free access to the EU market, should its commitment to democratic pluralism, human rights and fundamental freedoms fail to be upheld.
Multilateral bodies and mechanisms and international rights organisations should also pressure the Cambodian government to respect its treaty obligations and commitments to protect and respect freedom of expression and media freedom, says Amy Brouillette, Director of Advocacy at the International Press Institute. ‘Cambodia has ratified numerous international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression and the right to seek, receive and impart ideas regardless of frontiers and through any media’, she explains.
But Virak urged the international community to take a long-term approach rather than opting for short-term outrage that’s quickly forgotten. He believes we will witness the continuation of attempts to use different means to exert power over Cambodia’s population, ‘but at the same time you have a country on the borders of vast development with a young population that’s growing more ambitious […] It’s going to end up creating more friction’.
Virak calls for investment into the promotion of more critical thinking and media literacy. ‘Taking the long road is difficult to do because it’s not what the community is good at […] But in supporting a country’s development path in [democracy and human rights], it’s not like delivering pizzas […] You have to think much more longer-term.’
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