Header of SEAD with Sothoeuth Ith

Cambodia’s Media Clampdown

In this episode, we will talk about media shutdowns and shrinking democratic space in Cambodia, how media workers and the public alike are dealing with the situation, and how regional solidarity is really important to create change.

INTRO

Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.

In February 2023, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the closure of one of the country’s last independent local news outlets, Voice of Democracy (VOD), saying it had attacked him and his son and caused damage to the country. VOD is one of the few independent and vital media outlets left in Cambodia since the media crackdown circa 2017-2018.

Silence of the press is one of the Cambodian government’s strategies to stay in power. Freedom House observed that the 2018 Cambodian elections took place “in an extremely repressive environment”. The government maintains pressure on members of opposition parties, independent press and protesters through intimidation, prosecution and violence.

The 2023 elections are even more important for Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). After serving as one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers, Hun Sen will hand over the post to his son Hun Manet. He can only do it if the CPP wins the election.

At the time of recording, VOD has announced they will, quote, “start the rebroadcast of its rebroadcast of its news program via social media channels, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, from Monday, October 2nd, 2023. The daily program will be aired from 5.30pm to 6pm Cambodia time.”

While most important media have disappeared, Cambodians still crave important information. Most of them rely on other platforms they can access, such as social media. But what’s the future like for Cambodians, both media workers and the public alike?

SPEAKER INTRODUCTION

Hello everyone, I’m Sothoeuth, I’m Media Director at Cambodian Center for Independent Media, a local NGO working to promote independent media, freedom of expression, human rights, and democracy.

That is Sothoeuth Ith, Media Director at Cambodian Center for Independent Media. CCIM is a non-government organisation promoting and defending media freedom and independent media through media development activities.

In this episode, we will talk about media shutdowns and shrinking democratic space in Cambodia, how media workers and the public alike are dealing with the situation, and how regional solidarity is really important to create change.

INTERVIEW

The Closure of VOD

We are talking about media crackdowns, media clampdowns, shutdowns, closures, and all of the things that’s recently been happening in Cambodia. I guess one of the big things that happened earlier this year was the thing that you mentioned, which was the shutdown, the closure of VOD. Can you tell us more about how that whole thing went down?

It all started with one article that I was commanding the local language news team, they published one article about the fact that Cambodians provided aid to Turkey who experienced a natural disaster.

In that article, we based on one statement issued by the spokesperson office of the Prime Minister of the government. Then the reporter also called the spokesperson himself to get more information. After I got all the confirmation, we ran their article. Two days later, let me give some information about the call.

The article mentioned that based on the statement that the government was defending the fact that Hun Manet represented his father, who was at the time was the Prime Minister, to provide that aid to Turkey was not wrong.

In that story, the spokesperson also explained why it was not a problem. Two days later, the son of the former Prime Minister, and who is now the Prime Minister of Cambodia, he went to Facebook and he posted publicly demanding a VOD to provide the evidence of proof that he signed on the document to provide the aid to Turkey. Okay.

After that, in the evening, his father, the former Prime Minister, also used Facebook to demand VOD to provide that proof or else we should apologise to his son or he will shut down VOD. After discussing, actually, we also had a few conversations with the spokesperson himself and we already reached some agreement or we found a way to deal with that, but it didn’t turn out to be okay. And this is how you can see that the government shut down VOD.

Yeah. As far as I understood, you made attempts to actually reach out and do the apology, but it was rejected or something, and then you did get shut down anyway.

Actually, the spokesperson, when that thing happened, the spokesperson himself, he reached out to us to clarify things. And then, like I said, we tried to find a way out, but it didn’t really work like that. And yeah, of course, in our second letter we apologised directly to the Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister, but they shut us down anyway. They used the reason that we didn’t apologise to them in the first place.

Cambodia Media Shutdown

Yeah, right. But this is also… I mean, it was a pretty big thing in Cambodia and I guess in the rest of Southeast Asia, we heard about it. But it’s not the first thing. It’s not a new thing for the Cambodian government to be doing all of these things, to be doing shutdowns and stuff. Because as far as I understand, even ahead of the 2018 general elections, they shut down Radio Free Asia and VOA as well, the Khmer broadcast of VOA. Can you tell us about how these events happened? Was it a similar situation? Was it a different thing?

It is somehow similar because in 2017, the government ordered all radio, FM stations to stop broadcasting independent media and also I would say, critical media. I say critical media here because it may be that they are aligned with other political parties like opposition parties, but they are critical voices about the government.

I think more than 20 radio stations revoked the licence or were not allowed to run the air time to independent news. That also included VOD, which at the time also operated or aired its news program through FM stations.

And then this year also before the election, last time it was almost half, more than half a year when they did that. But this time it’s around half a year because VOD was shut down in February and the election was in July. So it’s maybe six months.

And then if we can see the two connections is that after the shutdown or the closure of independent media, we can see that in both years, the main opposition party were not allowed to compete in the election.

Censorship

Yeah. There’s this pattern of media shutdown prior to elections. But at the same time, as I understand, you also have, actually, you have the law for censorship and constricting the free flow of information. I think some people, a spokesperson for RFA also spoke up about that, that you know, this isn’t right. If you do already have the laws against those, are you guys fighting back? What’s been the discourse like there in Cambodia?

We don’t have much hope if we turn to the justice system. That’s why we didn’t really fight for that. We didn’t choose that way. We just try to find other ways that we hope that we can get the re-open of the state.

But unfortunately, it was not really a successful attempt. I think I can give an example. Right after the shutdown of VOD, one high ranking top leader of one country visited Cambodia and they did raise the issue to the Prime Minister and he said, I’m sorry, it was an internal issue. It seems like there was no hope at all because he already stated that there is no way back.

Yeah. Right now, the journalists there in Cambodia just navigate by self-censorship because we have been hearing some of the reporters from the OD and from Cambodia, the journalist association also mentioned there’s a strong atmosphere of self-censorship because of all of these shutdowns. How do you feel about that? And how do you feel about this whole situation? You mentioned international pressure, but then the Prime Minister said it’s an internal affair. How do you feel about that?

Honestly, as I myself, I was a journalist, so I’m really sad to see such a situation and also the environment that all journalists have to go through. It’s a very difficult situation for Cambodian journalists to work in now.

Talking about self-censorship, honestly, I could feel it. I think not just recently, but a few years already. And just that with the shutdown of VOD, that self-censorship would increase because we could see that more intimidation and more restrictions are posed against independent media.

I think the most recent case, you have learned about one ministry who reacted to the article by CamboJA and they demanded the outlet to make some corrections or make some changes to the article.

The Role of CMIM

With those things in mind, with those kinds of situations in mind, you’re Media Director at the Cambodia Centre for Independent Media. Do you like, as an organisation, how do you respond to the situation? Do you go out and provide training, for example, or maybe workshops to navigate around these self-censorship while still getting the point across? What’s the work like there?

After the shutdown, we were still in confusion because it all happened so fast. It came in like a sudden. In the first few months, our priority was to find the way and also what we’re going to do next. And of course, we have been trying to utilise the results that we have and also maximise what they can do. They want to share some experiences.

Then we also now, after three months, we have been conducting different kinds of training especially citizen journalists because now we cannot produce the media content ourselves. So we turn to provide more training. Actually, we provided training to citizen journalists in the past, but now we just try to focus more.
In addition to that, we also started one database called Kamnotra, where we store all the public data and public documents related to government data so people can go and access it easily. But unfortunately, before the election this year, it was also blocked by the ISP following the orders from the ministry.

Blocking Justification

That’s a bit funny, isn’t it? Because isn’t that publicly available data that people should be able to access and also the sources? It’s not like you’re hacking into some secret database and just leaking it. What was the justification of blocking all of these things?

I think that in the letter that the ministry sent to the ISP and it was linked to the public and it was widely shared on social media, they ordered the ISP to block those websites, including Kamnotra. They didn’t make a specific reason for each website, but they make it as a whole. 

They say, I think some of the reasons for those websites providing fake news or misinformation and also the illegal, what is illegal? I’m not quite sure which one of the reasons that they have given to the ISP that apply to Kamnotra.

Resurrection of VOD

Yeah, also. But there’s a more recent update that VOD will be resuming its airings in around two weeks from this recording time. I think that’s a pretty new update. What do you think is going to happen with that? How did VOD manage to navigate around that?

Navigate around, what do you mean?

Will it get shut down again or won’t it? Because it will have all of the backlash afterwards, right?

Well, when the government shut down VOD, there were, I don’t know how many ISPs, but some ISPs already blocked VOD websites. The accessibility of VOD’s website is not free anymore. It’s not available anymore.

Also, I’m not quite sure about social media like Facebook and Twitter or YouTube, maybe it’s got to be typical for them to block. By resuming VOD, there could be some backlash, but I’m not quite sure how they can do it to block because VOD was operating outside of the country. I don’t know how they can shut them down any more. This happened already in the past. I don’t know, there are Radio Free Asia who still operate from Washington DC and Cambodia Daily also.

Public Reaction

Yeah, because it is interesting to note how all of the media landscape, journalism, and everything in Cambodia is still trying to get their messages across despite the massive crackdowns from the government. I want to turn to the public, though. What has the public reaction been in Cambodia? Because obviously with all of these shutdowns, they can’t really find a way. It would be difficult to find critical perspectives on the government. Would you say that the public is, I don’t know, bothered by that and just really trying to find ways through VPN? Or are they too afraid to do that, perhaps? What’s the condition like there in general?

I think I would give a reference to maybe one study by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. I don’t really remember exactly the figure, but a very low percentage of Cambodian people have basic digital literacy.

When we talk about VPN, I don’t think there is a big number of Cambodian population who would be able to access this one or they don’t even know. Maybe they have no idea what a VPN is. I think for this one, it only applies to some academics, intellectual or social workers like civil society staff and also maybe some university students.

But for the general public, I think there are people who care. Like I addressed earlier, social media is still accessible, even though credible news outlets who broadcast from outside like Radio Free Asia and the Cambodia Daily. If you look at the numbers, they are quite popular because I think what the people need is the other side of the story because a lot of media outlets, not a lot, most of the media outlets in Cambodia, are just showing some try to support or promote the government.

People, they’re living in society and they’re living in reality, so when you live in the reality, you also want to hear what other people are saying about what’s going on in your country.

That’s why there are a lot of people still trying to find their ways to get credible news or maybe critical voices. But I think there is also a high level of self-censorship among the normal citizens. They refrain themselves from expressing their opinion. Some people, they just listen. But some people, they even go further, they’re not go and listen to any critical news or critical information, critics about the government. They would just say, I don’t want to be involved with this.

Another important thing is that with the economic difficulties, a lot of people, there may be some, they say, Oh, we need to feed ourselves first. Some, I think, but there are a lot of people who are still to get reliable and credible information.

Push for Change

With all of these conditions, though, with self-censorship and people still being afraid and just being more concerned about the welfare and livelihood compared to daily welfare, compared to the larger media landscape, it’s all connected. It’s all related, obviously. But what do you think is needed to actually push for change? How do you hope this situation will turn out? What do you actually need? Because it does seem like when the media is censored and the public themselves are, yeah, they can consume some information via social media, but they’re too afraid to speak up, then it’s very difficult to expect, for example, a massive movement there. Then you also said that we can’t really rely too much on the justice system. What can actually be done?

Well, because now we are going through something, a change, which just happened in 38 years, which means we have a new government which consists of a lot of intellectuals, those who have been educated, especially abroad, and mostly, I would say mostly in Western countries. Hopefully, they should understand the importance of freedom of expression and also the value of democracy.

Also, there’s some bad signs at the beginning, but hopefully because they are still new to this job, so hopefully they will be able to figure out that this is not the solution, this is not the way, and they should open up to the public so that they themselves also get a sense or understand what is going on in the country and what do people really want, not just to listen to the subordinates and also the media who just try to do the propaganda for the government.

I remember one quote, one white man said, he said that

Some countries fail because they always try to tell lies to the public. By telling lies from time to time, they themselves, they believe the lies and that’s why they fail in the mission. This should not happen or repeat it in Cambodia.

It should be a lesson learned for them to really serve the needs of the people and also so they can provide or serve people better and for the benefit of the country.

Worst Case Scenario

I don’t know. I don’t know if this next question makes sense, but if they decide not to do that, if they decide we want to just remain in power and we just, let’s say it turns out that they don’t really care or it’s just as bad or even worse than the previous government, what is actually the worst-case scenario for the people in this? If you don’t have media freedom, what can actually happen to the country? How can it worsen the situation at large, for example?

I think, yeah, you mentioned the word power. I think there are ways that they can remain in power. It doesn’t mean that if you want to be in power, you have to silence the people because it already happened in other countries. But I’m not saying it would happen in Cambodia, but as a leader, you are there to serve the people, you serve the country.

To answer your second question, without independent media, people will, I think let’s put it this way, Cambodia is democratic society. We adhere to the democracy principle. One of the main principles or the basics of democracy is the people.

When the people cannot exercise their fundamental rights and fundamental freedom, like freedom of expression. How can we have a healthy democracy?

Also, I think when people cannot speak, cannot exercise their rights, then they would be living in a situation where they cannot, they might live it with stress. And also,

How can they fully participate in the process of the development of Cambodia because they don’t have any reliable or credible news and information about what’s going on in the country. 

And also, when people refrain from expressing their opinion, like you raise a child, your child is scared of you. And when he or she has a problem, he doesn’t not talk to you. And how can you solve the issue? And then your child will end up growing up as a depressed person or undeveloped. The brain cannot develop much.

So it will be the same. And for Cambodia, I think I wish all the best that nothing bad happens when people are in too much depression or too much difficulty that they cannot be.

Regional Solidarity

Yeah, that’s actually an interesting analogy that a country is not going to grow up with healthy people if the people can’t speak, if the people don’t have adequate sources of information. I guess, okay, returning to your point about, because you mentioned when your Prime Minister was asked by some leader of another country, then they said that it’s an internal issue. But I do feel like with enough international pressure from Southeast Asians, if we highlight the situation in Cambodia and we keep putting pressure on that, Hey, it’s not right to crack down on media freedom. You did mention that the new people in power may be more open to the ideas of media freedom and democracy and stuff like that. Would you say that it’s also important for the people not in Cambodia, the people in the rest of Southeast Asia or perhaps in other parts of the world to actually speak up about this? Do you think that will be an effective strategy to get the government to open up more? Or what are your thoughts on this?

Well, I think it does. It does have an effect on one another. But unfortunately, we can see the trend in the region that a lot of countries in the region are doing similar things.

That’s why if we cannot rely on other governments, but maybe civil society and also the people in the region, they should show their solidarity and also support one another to ask for the government to be more transparent, more accountable to the people.

I would say it’s a very difficult job, a very difficult task to do when we try to advocate to governments who are trying to copy one another, but copying the bad thing, not the good thing. Of course, with civil society and also the people, they should give each other’s hands.

Yeah, that’s an interesting point that you mentioned. We’ve also heard several times from activists and journalists across Southeast Asia that governments are copying one another in terms of their tactics. What is the most effective way to crack down on not only media freedom, but democracy in ways that the people can’t really wiggle under their thumb, so to speak. I guess building solidarity also means that we need to learn from one another what is the most effective way to put pressure on the government, what is the most effective way to resist, stuff like that. Do you have any experiences on what has been the most effective way for you in your line of work in terms of navigating and resisting all of these?

Honestly, we just try to have different collaborations in the region. But for the best experience, let me think. I don’t think, maybe there’s nothing to share yet.

What can the Listeners Do?

Yeah, I guess it’s fine because we are, again, as you mentioned, we’ve already had a history of this throughout Southeast Asia, but it does seem like recently things are getting worse and that’s why we are demanded to try a lot of new things, do a lot of collaborations and see which one works. If we don’t have a pattern yet, I guess that’s just part of the process, we’re still trying to find out what is the best way to go here. But on that note, though, and I guess this is also a question to wrap up the discussion, I believe that we have a lot of listeners who are concerned about the situation, who have strong motivations to continue to push for democracy in their respective countries, but also in Cambodia and also the rest of Southeast Asia. You did mention some stuff about media literacy and digital literacy. You mentioned a lot of stuff about social media and how some people in certain countries might not be free enough to speak for themselves. But yeah, as an individual listener or if the listener is part of a small group or small collective or organisation, what can the listener do to help the situation in Cambodia?

I think what they can do now is maybe first, they need to pay more attention to what’s going on in Cambodia to at least show to the Cambodian people and the Cambodian government that people in the region cares about what’s happening in Cambodia and what is going on in the region.

Secondly, if they can, when there are some campaigns or yeah, I think from time to time, CSO in Cambodia, they would do a campaign. I think currently one of our working groups called Access to Information Group, they are trying to have an online petition to ask the local government to pass the law, access to information law. So I think this is some support that people in the region can show.

Also, I think we can take what happened in Myanmar as an example. For example, if the people in the region see a serious issue in one country like Cambodia, I think they crack down on independent media. They might be able to do a protest or any demand to the government or to the embassy in a respective country to ask for the government to reconsider and also to respect human rights and also freedom of the journalist. I think that at least this is the least thing that they can do.

It’s interesting because on the one hand, it does seem like things are quite bleak and things are quite bleak from a lot of angles, in a lot of ways, because having a media crackdown, I have people being terrified of the government. But on the other hand, if you zoom out and take a look at things regionally, as you mentioned, taking the example of Myanmar, to an example of these other countries and paying attention to people in Cambodia. It’s like, Hey, we are heading in that direction and it’s very important for us to pay attention there. If the people inside the country can’t do it, there’s no reason for people outside of the country in the neighbouring countries to not do it, to build this regional solidarity and find new ways, finding new angles. You mentioned protesting in embassies and stuff like that. I do feel like that’s a strong but also underexplored angle, really showing this international pressure and regional solidarity so that the government knows that, Oh, okay, I’m just not dealing with my own country. I’m dealing with a regional solidarity movement here, which I think is very important to keep moving forward.

I think everyone should see it the same way that when something happens in one country, it’s not the issue in the country, but the issue in the region.

Yeah, especially with a lot of governments copying each other for all of those techniques. I think it’s very important to really build that regional movement. Okay, so on that note, I think we can wrap up. It’s a great note to end on. Thank you so much for speaking to us, Sothoeuth

OUTRO

And that wraps up our discussion with Sothoeuth Ith. If you’re starting to feel like we keep singing the same tune here in this podcast, you’re absolutely right: It always comes back to building regional solidarity.

Southeast Asia is facing a similar set of problems, only with varying intensities. We should pay attention to our neighbouring countries because in a couple of years, or a couple of months, that could be us. If governments are learning from each other how to oppress people better, then we also have to learn from each other how to resist oppression. Develop new techniques to pick up where others left off or are too afraid or at risk to take further action.

If you are a journalist in Cambodia and you experience violence, or if you want to help other journalist friends who experience violence, you can contact CamboJA, the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association, through the contact page on their official site, camboja.net – that’s C-A-M-B-O-J-A dot net. CamboJA also provides legal assistance to journalists at risk.

Alternatively, you can contact the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) to get legal support. You can also join their training sessions, advocacy movements, and support the various other important work they do. Find them on ccimcambodia.org – that’s C-C-I-M-C-A-M-B-O-D-I-A dot org.

My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.

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