Cambodia shutters Voice of Democracy in latest move to wipe out dissent

Observers condemn the closure of the independent media outlet ahead of upcoming elections.
By RFA Khmer
2023.02.13
Cambodia shutters Voice of Democracy in latest move to wipe out dissent An employee cries at the office of online media outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023.
AFP

Cambodian authorities on Monday shut down the Voice of Democracy, sending tearful employees packing and prompting calls from rights groups and the international community to reinstate its license as one of the last remaining independent media outlets in the country.

Cambodia is scheduled to hold a general election on July 23 that observers say the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has already stacked in its favor through a number of actions targeting the main opposition Candlelight Party.

The announcement that the plug had been pulled on Voice of Democracy broadcasts after more than 20 years of reporting on abuses of power and corruption in Cambodia elicited an immediate reaction from observers who said the odds that Prime Minister Hun Sen will win another five-year term are even greater with no unbiased source of news left in the nation.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said it was “deeply troubled” by the news that the government had closed down one of the few remaining outlets providing “objective, fact-based reporting on issues that serve the interests of the Cambodian people.”

“A free and independent press plays a critical role in a functioning democracy, providing the public and decision-makers with facts and holding governments to account,” the embassy said in a statement, urging the government to revisit its decision.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a briefing in Washington that the decision “is particularly troubling due to the chilling impact it will have on freedom of expression and on access to information ahead of the national elections in July.”

The European Union delegation in Cambodia issued a statement along with the embassies of Belgium, the Czech republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Poland and Portugal expressing “deep concern” over the move.

“This decision seriously undermines media freedom and pluralism, which are essential for any open and free society,” it said.

“Access of information and freedom of speech are basic tenets of a democratic society and the foundation for free and fair elections,” the statement added, noting that such rights are enshrined in Cambodia’s Constitution and should be protected.

Frustration palpable

Hun Sen’s decision to shut down the Voice of Democracy followed a Feb. 9 report in which it quoted the head of the government's spokesperson unit, Phay Siphan, as saying that Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, had approved a budget contribution of U.S.$100,000 to support Turkey in the aftermath of a massive earthquake that killed more than 36,000 people there and in neighboring Syria. 

Phay Siphan dismissed claims that Hun Manet had overreached his authority, saying his order was “consistent” with normal government procedures because Hun Sen was absent at the time of the approval.

On Saturday, Hun Manet denied the report and Hun Sen demanded that the Voice of Democracy issue an apology within 24 hours for “publishing false claims.” The following day, the media group informed the Ministry of Information that its reporting was based on Phay Siphan’s comments and asked Hun Sen for leniency, but the prime minister refused and on Monday morning ordered that its broadcast license be revoked for spreading “slanderous” information.

Ith.jpeg
Ith Sothoeuth, media director of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media (CCIM) which oversees VOD, speaks to media outside his office in Phnom Penh on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Credit: AFP

Following the order, the Voice of Democracy announced that its employees would be taking time off from work indefinitely. Acting director Ith Sotheourth told RFA Khmer that the outlet is “in discussions with relevant stakeholders to find a solution” that would allow it to resume operations, but was unable to provide further details.

The frustration in Voice of Democracy’s newsroom was palpable on Monday, as police officers pushed past some 50 members of the international media and civil society groups gathered in support outside the outlet’s offices to deliver a formal letter revoking its broadcasting license. One employee wept uncontrollably after hearing that the office was shutting down.

Khan Leakena, a reporter who has worked with Voice of Democracy for nearly 10 years, called the government’s decision “unacceptable,” saying that closing the outlet is like “shutting down the voice of the people.”

“I want the government to reconsider shutting down VOD ... because VOD carries the voice of the people who, through their votes, are the masters of the government,” she warned.

The closure is eerily similar to those of several other independent media outlets prior to the last general election in 2018, which the CPP swept. In the lead up to the polls, a government crackdown led to the closure of 32 FM radio frequencies (including those that broadcast RFA Khmer Service content), the arrest of two former RFA journalists, and the closure of The Cambodia Daily newspaper.

‘Wiping out dissent’

Candlelight Party spokesman Kim Sour Phirith on Monday expressed regret over the government’s decision.

“[Constructive] criticism should be accepted, but if it is not warranted, a request should be made for a correction or retraction,” he said. “The pre-election political environment requires a bit more openness.”

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders went further to condemn the decision, which it called “the latest in a series of worrying moves by Hun Sen’s government to restrict press freedom.”

“This arbitrary decision sends a truly ominous message for press freedom ahead of the upcoming July elections,” the group said, calling for “the immediate reinstatement of VOD and concrete steps to begin to repair the damage that has been done to Cambodia’s media landscape in recent years.”

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Authorities arrive to close down the Voice of Democracy office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Credit: Associated Press

London’s Amnesty International slammed the move as “a blatant attempt to slam the door on what’s left of independent media in the country, and a clear warning to other critical voices months before national elections.”

"The order to close puts the Cambodian public’s access to information at risk now that the government has removed another obstacle along its road to wipe out dissent in the country,” the group said in a statement.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the order “flimsy and absurd,” adding that it “barely masks the government’s real intent to further suppress media freedom.”

“It’s also not lost on anyone that historically, PM Hun and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party usually crack down hard on any independent voices in the advance of a national election,” he said, suggesting that the upcoming ballot “will be neither free nor fair.”

“The real losers in all of this are the people of Cambodia, who have now lost one of the last remaining independent muckraking, anti-corruption media outlets that stood up for the interests of people and communities fighting to keep their land, livelihoods, and rights against the pernicious corrupt government officials and cronies who define just about everything Hun Sen’s government does,” he said.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 142nd out of 180 countries in its 2022 World Press Freedom Index, up from 144th in 2021, citing the crackdown on independent media in the lead up to the last election.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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Samy Inn
Feb 14, 2023 03:44 PM

No doubt Cambodia Leaders , either ex- king, ex general, ex-economist, ex middle school had and has no real Democracy in practical ways. I followed my father who fought under Prime Minister direction to obtain Khmer Independence from France in 1953. I myself had cut the ribbon of Olympic Stadium Inauguration on order Prime Minister, donated by Indonesia in 1966. As survivor of Pol Pot regime, lived for year after Viet Nam invasion. Cambodia had a routine elimination of all opposition persons.
Cambodians please vote for a qualified Leader in the future. "Deux tetes vaut mieux qu'un tete", French old say (= two heads are better than one head.