Cambodia’s Leader Shuts Independent News Outlet

From a New York Times story by Seth Mydans headlined “Cambodia’s Leader Shuts Independent News Outlet Ahead of Election”:

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia ordered the shutdown of the Voice of Democracy, one of the country’s last independent news outlets, intensifying a long-running crackdown on the news media and political opposition as he consolidates his grip on power.

Mr. Hun Sen said he was angry at a reference to his son and presumed heir, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, by the outlet, and was not satisfied with the apology he received.

A leading Cambodian human rights organization, Licadho, noted the significance of the action, saying the news outlet, known as VOD, “has become one of the most important independent media outlets in the country in recent years, publishing in Khmer and English.”

Voice of Democracy’s radio arm was shut down in 2017, and it was one of dozens of frequencies taken off the air in a broad sweep before the country’s 2018 elections. Since then it has published online and on Facebook, where it has 1.8 million followers.

In recent months, hundreds of opposition politicians and their supporters have been charged with crimes, imprisoned or forced into exile, in effect clearing the field for Mr. Hun Sen to remain in power. His party now holds all 125 seats in Parliament.

Among those imprisoned was Theary Seng, a Cambodian American lawyer and human rights activist who was sentenced to six years in prison in June and is serving her time in a prison in the remote province of Preah Vihear.

VOD has been an irritant to the prime minister with its aggressive reporting on social and political issues.

It has published dozens of articles documenting oppression in the lead-up to local elections in 2022 and more than 60 other pieces in an exposé about forced labor in cyber-scam operations.

“The shutdown of an independent media outlet is similar to the crackdown on journalists ahead of the last national election in 2018,” Licadho said in the statement. A general election is scheduled for July.

In late 2017, the Cambodia Daily, a major English-language publication, was shuttered over an arbitrary tax bill. Among the three dozen reporters who now stand to lose their jobs at VOD were some who had worked at the Cambodia Daily.

VOD was founded in 2003 by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization promoting and defending media freedom. In an idealistic mission statement, it envisioned “a Cambodian society where everybody is well-informed and empowered to strengthen democratic governance and respect human rights.”

VOD is now run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, and the shutdown involved the revocation of the center’s media license.

That action came after Mr. Hun Sen and his son took issue with a Feb. 9 VOD article, which included a comment from a government representative indicating that General Manet had signed an agreement providing financial assistance to Turkey following the Feb. 6 earthquake there.

Such an action apparently exceeded General Manet’s mandate, and Mr. Hun Sen said a letter from the Center for Independent Media was inadequate because it did not include the word “apology.” He then rejected a subsequent appeal that did use the word, saying the government “has to maintain its dignity.”

Khieu Kanharith, the minister of information, said: “It is a lesson learned for other media institutions.”

On Monday, access to VOD’s websites appeared to have been blocked by internet and cellular service providers in Cambodia. The reporter who wrote the article that angered Mr. Hun Sen was harassed online, including with misogynistic attacks.

Two dozen media and human rights organizations, in Cambodia and abroad, issued a statement condemning the closing, saying it “signals a serious threat to all independent media and journalists in Cambodia.”

The United Nations human rights chief, Volker Türk, said he was alarmed by what appeared to be an arbitrary decision to shut down the news outlet.

“I call on the government of Cambodia to rescind this very troubling decision, to protect the civil and political rights of all, and to ensure an enabling environment for civil society, including independent media outlets,” he said in a statement.

The United States Embassy issued a statement saying it was “deeply troubled” by the abrupt decision to revoke VOD’s media license.

It emphasized the role a free and independent press plays in a functioning democracy. “For more than 20 years, VOD has provided objective, fact-based reporting on issues that serve the interests of the Cambodian people,” the embassy said in the statement.

Seth Mydans reported as a foreign and national correspondent for The New York Times and its sister publication, The International Herald Tribune, from 1983 to 2012. He continues to contribute to The Times.

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