FREE and independent media in Cambodia is “in ruins” thanks to a concerted crackdown from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Hun Sen, according to a new report.
Last week, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a special report entitled Cambodia: The Independent Press in Ruins, in which it tracked the systematic dismantling of media freedom in the Kingdom alongside attacks against political opposition and civil society.
Its report argues that Hun Sen’s desire to suppress free media in Cambodia came after the 2013 election, in which the CPP’s victory was “widely disputed” by non-government aligned media organisations.
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According to RSF, Hun Sen “learned the lesson” and “wants to silence all discordant voices” through intimidation of journalists and forced closure of various media outlets before this year’s general election, slated for July.
“In a simplistic, either-with-us-or-against-us strategy, the regime is now in the process of banning, obstructing, or intimidating all independent media outlets that might refuge to toe the official line,” said Daniel Bastard, RSF’s Head of Asia-Pacific Desk.
It points to the closure of local newspaper the Cambodia Daily last September as a major blow for democracy, having “nurture[d] the initial blossoming” of democratisation in the Southeast Asian state through criticism of the government and opposition, as well as its investigative reporting.
“After 24 years of reporting and defending media freedom, it was denied renewal of its licence and published its last issue on September 4. Ironically, its last frontpage story was about the arrest of the leader of the opposition,” read the report.
RSF also highlighted the forced closure of some 21 local radio stations as well as Radio Free Asia broadcasts for supposedly “not requesting permission to broadcast external programs”. Two RFA journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin now face up to 15 years in prison for espionage.
At least 14 journalists have been killed since 1992 in relation to their job, including political commentator Kem Ley who was gunned down in 2016 after producing an exposé about Hun Sen’s family’s business dealings. Kem Ley’s family was this week granted asylum in Australia.
Government-liked news outlets including Fresh News, meanwhile, were being used to “attack political opponents”, said the report.
“The recipe is more or less the same every day: draw attention to the problems in other countries in order to discredit those who would change things in Cambodia … criticise the United States as the mastermind of the colour revolution that would try to topple and the government and create chaos.”
Along with cybercrime laws and a range of other attempts to control the media and silence critics, these tactics have contributed to an environment of fear and ultimately self-censorship, said RSF.
A cry for help in Australia
Speaking to the Australian Press Club in Canberra last Thursday, exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy called upon Australia to help “resuscitate” democracy in Cambodia.
“The Cambodian people alone cannot resuscitate democracy in their country,” he said. “Cambodia is too small and too vulnerable a country to be able to determine its own fate as history has shown over the last centuries and particularly over the last decades.”
Rainsy argued that Australia’s longstanding political, economic and “emotional” investment in Cambodia meant that Hun Sen’s government’s actions should be unacceptable.
Moreover, assisting to rebuild the Kingdom’s democratisation would have positive implications for the whole region, he argued. “The democratisation of Cambodia would potentially mean a lot to communist countries such as Laos, Vietnam and eventually China,” Rainsy said.
“Cambodia is the weak point of the authoritarian bloc in Asia. There are real opportunities for democracy to prevail in Asia starting with Cambodia.”