UPDATED at 4:40 P.M. EDT on 2017-09-012
Radio Free Asia has decided to close its nearly 20-year old bureau in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh amid a relentless crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen's authoritarian regime on independent media ahead of critical polls next year, RFA President Libby Liu announced Tuesday.
Using a pretext of tax and administrative violations, the Cambodian authorities have recently closed independent radio stations carrying reports from RFA and its sister US government-funded radio station, the Voice of America, as well as the Voice of Democracy station, and forced the closure of the American-owned Cambodia Daily newspaper.
Liu said the authorities had employed the same tactics against RFA, despite its full cooperation to comply with all government requests and its efforts to register as a licensed media company in Cambodia.
They had resorted to "false statements" and "increasingly threatening and intimidating rhetoric" about RFA, made mostly through leaked documents on government mouthpiece media and random statements from different ministries, she said.
"After almost 20 years of bringing the Cambodian people independent, reliable and trustworthy news and information from inside the country, Radio Free Asia has regrettably been forced to close its Phnom Penh bureau," Liu said in a statement.
"The government’s relentless crackdown on independent voices in recent weeks has made it impossible to keep the bureau open while guaranteeing the integrity of RFA’s journalistic mission."
Liu stressed however that RFA, which broadcasts into six countries, including North Korea, China, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, would continue reporting on Cambodia as part of its mission to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press.
"RFA stands resolved to stay true to its vital mission in Cambodia, now more than ever, to go forward shining a light even in the darkest of hours," she said. "RFA will keep reporting on the most important and censored issues and events inside the country - and we will continue to broadcast and publish our programs, reports and content on shortwave radio, social media, and on our website.
"As history has shown, dictators may rise and force their will on nations, but the people will always seek truth in pursuit of freedom."
Cambodian Information Ministry spokesperson Ouk Kimseng said the government would monitor how RFA covered news about the country following the closing of its bureau in Phnom Penh.
The closure transforms RFA “from working openly to working from darkness [secretly],” he said on his Facebook page. “Let’s wait and see how else it is doing?”
Through the years, Cambodian journalists working for RFA have risked their lives to report on corruption, illegal logging, forced evictions, bribery, labor disputes, and rights abuses, among other important stories largely ignored by state-controlled media, said Liu
"Their hard work has helped to build the foundation of RFA’s investigative, in-depth journalism from the ground up and has earned us the trust of the Cambodian people -- to whom we also owe our heartfelt gratitude," Liu said.
She said she hoped that the government would not persecute "the individual brave Cambodians" who worked with RFA in retaliation for RFA’s efforts to bring reliable free press to their countrymen and women.
The RFA closure of its Phnom Penh office on Tuesday came as the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia rejected accusations by the Hun Sen government of interference by the United States as “inaccurate, misleading and baseless” and called for the release of detained opposition leader Kem Sokha.
Kem Sokha was arrested on Sept. 3 and charged with treason and accused of plotting with the United States to take power from Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years.
On Monday, Hun Sen, who could face his biggest election challenge next year. threatened to dissolve Kem Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) if it continued to back him. Hun Sen on Monday was visiting China, which voiced support for his handling of the opposition.
"It has become increasingly apparent that Prime Minister Hun Sun has no intention of allowing free media to continue operating inside the country ahead of the 2018 elections. The government has instead seized on every opportunity to go after critics, political opponents, NGOs, and independent media committed to reporting the truth," Liu said.
Libby Liu's full statement is at http://www.rfa.org/about/releases/statement-on-cambodia-09122017092506.html
Updated with a response from Cambodia's Information Ministry.