Cambodia: Rights groups denounce Hun Sen’s crackdown against media, NGOs
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Cambodia: Rights groups denounce Hun Sen’s crackdown against media, NGOs

HIGH-PROFILE international human rights groups have slammed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s intensifying “onslaught” against media and civil society organisations ahead of national elections in 2018.

“We are concerned by a rapid series of ministerial and administrative measures which have resulted in the suspension of radio programmes and licences, threatened a main English-language newspaper with closure, and shut down a foreign non-governmental organisation,” Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spokesman Liz Throssell said on Friday.

“Ahead of next year’s general election, we call on the government to guarantee full political and civil rights, and media freedoms.”

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The US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) last week called for a review of the Cambodian government’s decision to shutter its office and expel all of its foreign employees.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government of Hun Sen should “end its escalating campaign of politically-motivated harassment, intimidation, and legal action against the media, nongovernmental groups, and human rights defenders.”

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A Buddhist monk casts his vote during local elections in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on June 4, 2017. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

“The Cambodian government’s shutdown of independent media outlets and a respected democracy promotion group shows that Hun Sen is intensifying efforts to curb criticism of his rule,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said.

“We are surprised and saddened by this development,” NDI president Kenneth Wollack said in a statement last week.

“For 25 years in Cambodia, NDI has worked with all major political parties, including the ruling party.”

“We have concerns NDI was closed without due process and are worried about the overall deterioration of the environment for human rights defenders and civil society in Cambodia,” Throssell said.

Last week, the Cambodia Daily newspaper was threatened with closure by Cambodian authorities if it does not pay a whopping US$6.4 million tax bill by Sept 4.

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Some 15 radio stations were also forcibly closed by the government, reported the Phnom Penh Post, for allegedly breaching their contracts with the Information Ministry.

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Supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on June 2, 2017. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

“Demanding vast sums of money from a media outlet without first conducting an audit and then threatening it with closure for non-payment in an extremely short space of time constitutes an indirect form of censorship,” said a statement from Reporters Without Borders.

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“These threats are all the more disturbing because they are occurring one year before the next elections. We fear a pre-emptive clampdown designed to silence media that are likely to let the opposition’s voice be heard.”

OHCHR called upon Cambodia’s government to “ensure due process in all measures taken, including the right to appeal, and to respect the rights to freedom of association and expression.”

Back in April, Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the Cambodia Daily and its competitor the Phnom Penh Post published “unsubstantiated accusations against the government” on a daily basis in both English and Khmer.

It also claimed Radio Free Asia and Voice of America were “die hard pro-opposition radio stations.”

In June’s local commune elections, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party won some 46 percent of the vote to the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party’s 51 percent – a massive increase from the previous poll where the government gained 97 percent against a divided opposition.

Hun Sen has been in power for three decades – making him one of the longest serving world leaders on the planet.