The End of Cambodia’s Free Press

Cambodia - New Naratif

After three hours of questioning, the immigration police took my phone.

“We need to see if you are guilty,” the interpreter said.

“Guilty of what?” I asked.

“We will see,” he answered.

Reporting in Cambodia

For years, Cambodia was seen as a country with a fairly vibrant media landscape. Although it, like all its Southeast Asian neighbours, had issues with press freedom, the United Nation’s efforts to instill democracy and civil society in post-conflict Cambodia meant that independent outlets were able to operate. Home to multiple independent radio stations and newspapers, Cambodia stood apart from one-party Communist states like Vietnam, where the scene is dominated by state-sponsored media. But that free press has been reduced to rubble in the last two years, coinciding with a political crackdown that’s essentially destroyed any semblance of democracy in the country.

I landed in Phnom Penh in July 2016, just three days after political activist Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight in what many believe to be a state-sponsored hit. The assassination left me with the impression that Cambodia was in complete chaos, although a few months of relatively tame reporting cured me of that misconception. Initially, I found pretty much what I expected and wanted from Cambodia; a more exciting place than America to ply my trade and earn my stripes as a journalist.

Home to multiple independent radio stations and newspapers, Cambodia stood apart from one-party Communist states like Vietnam

It didn’t mean that there weren’t any problems with press freedom. Within a few months, I met one of the reporters who had been with environmental activist Chut Wutty when he was killed by military police in 2012. After the killing, the military police had talked openly about raping and murdering the reporter and another female journalist.

Two of my colleagues at The Phnom Penh Post covered the opposition protests in 2013 and 2014. One witnessed the riot police shooting protesters; the other was beaten by municipal security personnel.

While I hadn’t experienced any direct pressure or harassment at that point, the spectre of these past events hung over my colleagues and I, particularly the Cambodian staff who didn’t have the protection of an international embassy. Then things began to deteriorate.

In January 2017, not long before the political crackdown started in earnest, the head of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit threatened my colleague Mech Dara. Three members of that unit had been jailed for one year after viciously beating opposition parliamentarians, but were promoted immediately after their release. Mech Dara had been chasing that story.

“You are an inciter and naughty, the problem is over. Why do you keep poking the problem? You should be careful,” the head of the unit said.

The beginning of the crackdown

The mood tangibly changed in August, when threatening rhetoric became reality. The National Democratic Institute, a pro-democracy NGO with funding from the United States, was shuttered and its foreign staff expelled. Fifteen pro-opposition radio stations were forcibly closed. The Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper, was slapped with a multi-million dollar tax bill. Ed Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, described the events of August in Cambodia as “the worst blow to press freedom in the region”.

Over at the Post, the reaction was at first one of disbelief. The idea that our fiercest rival—which had reported on some of the most monumental and sensitive events in Cambodia’s history—could be shut down was unfathomable at first, and many expected a last minute reprieve for The Cambodia Daily. When that didn’t come, we began to feel that our days were numbered too.

On the same day that The Cambodia Daily published its last edition, opposition politician Kem Sokha was arrested on widely criticised charges of treason.

Hun Sen - New Naratif
Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, has clamped down on Cambodian media and civil society ahead of the elections this month. Credit: Shahjehan /

It seems clear now that the crackdowns on the political arena and the independent media were related. Emboldened by China’s support, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken more and more measures to dismantle the structures of democracy, civil society, and free press put into place by the United Nations. His authoritarian government is certain to continue committing human rights abuses; without an independent media presence in Cambodia, the powerful can act with impunity.

Understaffed, overworked, and afraid, the atmosphere at the Post was markedly different following the shutdown of The Cambodia Daily. Tempers began to flare and people grew anxious; once, a Cambodian reporter and western editor started shouting at each other because the reporter hadn’t wanted to question a government official over a politically sensitive issue.

On 15 November, two Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporters were arrested for espionage, under suspicion of attempting to operate a studio after the outlet closed. The following day, the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the main opposition party entirely, and I got my first real taste of Cambodia’s draconian system.

Detained in Cambodia

The sun had barely risen when I stepped out the door of my guesthouse and headed for the strangely empty main road. The sidewalks, normally full of carts selling noodle soup or pork and rice, were also bare. People were steering clear of the area that day.

Ahead of me strolled a group of half a dozen soldiers, spread out across one of Phnom Penh’s busiest boulevards as if it were a path in a public park.

I recorded a video (below) as three trucks full of military police rumbled by. Soon after, I noticed a man in uniform waving me over. Eagerly, as if each and every one of them was doing something exceedingly important, all 12 or so members of the squad began snapping photos of me and my passport.

“You have no right to be here,” said a young officer with glasses. A fluent English speaker, he was to be my main point of contact for the next twelve hours.

He claimed the entire area surrounding the Supreme Court was completely off-limits—a claim with no basis in Cambodian law. He held my arm firmly as we walked down the stone path by the river to a waiting SUV.

Shortly after, a Russian tourist with a camera was also shoved into the car. We were taken down a random side street, where the SUV parked up. No one offered any explanation of where we were going or what we’d done wrong. At that moment, I realised that I was at the complete mercy of a government I had absolutely no faith in. The realisation sent a shudder down my spine.

The clock struck seven, and the gathered officials began unlocking the cage-like gate in front of what turned out to be an immigration office. The Russian and I were separated; it was the beginning of what turned out to be a three-hour interrogation.

The interrogation

The questions were fairly basic at first: When did you first come to Cambodia? Have you ever worked for any NGOs or human rights groups? Have you ever been involved in a protest?

Then I told them that I’d covered protests for The Post before; this sparked a new line of more intense questioning. When? Where? Who was participating? Did you participate? How many people?

The police demanded that I recount the day’s events, even though not a lot had happened thus far. They told me that I could be arrested if I lied or failed to cooperate; that confused me, as I thought I’d already been arrested. They wanted to know who “ordered” me to cover the event.

They transcribed my statement into Khmer and told me to sign it. I refused, saying I couldn’t sign something I didn’t understand.

“You have no right to do that,” said the interpreter.

We went back and forth for a few minutes before he asked, “Are you refusing to cooperate?”

Remembering that a refusal to cooperate could result in arrest, I signed the paper.

They police took my phone somewhere else to be “processed”. “We need to see if you are guilty,” the interpreter said.

“Guilty of what?” I asked.

“We will see,” he answered.

The next six hours passed in a bizarre mix of total boredom and absolute anxiety. I stared at a wall, doodled, jotted down notes, worrying that I would be deported or charged with espionage. Instead, I was eventually released.

The two Cambodian RFA reporters, Yeang Sothearin and Oun Chhin, were not as fortunate. They still remain behind bars today. It’s been almost seven months since our detentions; every time I read their names, I think about the privilege that allows me to continue reporting while they waste away in prison cells.

Foreign reporters have a layer of protection—access to embassies ready to provide support and assistance, family and friends who could kick up a fuss and attract widespread media attention, or the option to simply pack up and leave the country. Local reporters have no such safety net.

“Targeted prosecutions”

According to Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, my experience at the immigration centre had not been in accordance with the law; the police aren’t supposed to detain an individual without explaining the exact nature of the crime being investigated.

“For example, it is not sufficient to arrest and detain a person on grounds of presumed connection with subversive activities,” she says, explaining that a detained individual must be told what crime they’re suspected of having committed. “Failure to do that would render an arrest and detention arbitrary.”

She also said that the arbitrary interference with an individual’s private belongings, including a phone, is “prohibited under international human rights law”.

But the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights has noted an increase in “targeted prosecutions” against journalists and activists in the past year.

“It is deeply concerning that since past months, critical media outlets, and journalists working on social issues in particular, appear to have been targeted by the authorities… it is hard not to feel alarmed by the state of press freedom in Cambodia,” says Sopheap.

The screws tighten

The situation continued to worsen in the months following my detention.

When we went to Kampong Chhnang province in late November to interview ethnic Vietnamese whose Cambodian documents had been revoked—effectively rendering them stateless—we were chased away by the immigration police. We had to resort to calling villagers into our car to conduct hidden interviews.

When a new dam flooded the homes of indigenous communities in Stung Treng, we found police checkpoints dotting the road, alert for wildlife traders, NGO workers, and reporters.

“It is hard not to feel alarmed by the state of press freedom in Cambodia”

There’s definitely far more anxiety among journalists now to when I first arrived in 2013,” says freelancer George Wright, a former mainstay at The Cambodia Daily.

Wright says he used to feel “fairly confident” that he could be safely critical of the government, but with the RFA reporters and Australian blogger James Ricketson facing long-term prison sentences, “you can’t be so sure”.

“That said, I don’t self-censor. The moment you start watering down the facts is the time to pack [it] in,” he adds.

Dara, the Cambodian reporter who was threatened by Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard commander, says he’s grown used to this kind of pressure.

“There is a lot of manipulation, a lot of threat, and intimidation. We get it from senior military [officials], we get it from police,” he says, explaining that journalists critical of the government are treated like members of the opposition party, and have their access to information restricted.

In March 2018, the public became aware of another multi-million dollar tax bill sent to a media outlet—this time, it was for The Phnom Penh Post.

The decline of the Post

Both the tax bills delivered to the Post and the Daily were the results of heavily disputed auditing processes. The Cambodia Daily editor-in-chief Jodie DeJonge described the bill for the paper as having been “pulled out of thin air”.

The management at the Post took a more diplomatic approach than its former competitor, framing the tax bill as a business issue rather than a political matter. Still, there were logical inconsistencies. For example, every newspaper the Post printed was counted towards its total revenue, even if they weren’t ultimately sold. Even more concerning is the way audits take place in Cambodia: foreign entities and groups targeted by the government have all their transactions gone over with a fine-tooth comb, while the government officials’ own finances are completely obscured.

Rather than face the music, the Post’s publisher, the Australian mining magnate Bill Clough, sold the paper to a Malaysian buyer. While there’s no evidence that this sale was orchestrated by the Cambodian government, the result has been the neutering of the last independent newspaper in the country.

The Post’s new owner, Sivakumar Ganapathy, is the director of a public relations company that once counted Hun Sen among its clients—Ganapathy, however, has disavowed any conflict of interest. He also has clear connections to Abdul Taib Mahmud, one of the most corrupt politicians in Malaysia. As Chief Minister of Malaysian state Sarawak, Mahmud oversaw the illegal logging of 95% of Sarawak’s forests, according to the environmental NGO Global Witness. It was obvious from day one that, even if the paper’s new masters were not in cahoots with Hun Sen, they had their own ideas of what constitutes a free press.

Most senior staffers resigned rather than take down an article detailing Ganapathy’s unsavory connections, culminating in the firing of Kay Kimsong, the editor-in-chief. Multiple thorough conversations between remaining reporters and new management revealed a fundamental disagreement on the purpose and meaning of a free press.

While foreign reporters have the ability to leave the country or seek employment elsewhere, the decision was much more difficult for Cambodian reporters. Local reporters, who often have families to support, tend to find it harder to break into the freelance market. Even so, local reporters are trickling out of the Post as well, with at least three reporters leaving in recent months.

The new chief editor, Joshua Purushotman, scoffed at the reporters who had left. Sivakumar denied that there was an ongoing crackdown on dissidents in Cambodia, and said during a press conference that being critical or reporting critically on media ownership was not part of journalism.

The Post’s political coverage has been notably dialled down since the takeover

My former colleague Yon Sineat initially stayed at the Post, but has since allowed her contract to expire. She found she had irreconcilable differences with the new management.

She says the paper has “changed a lot”, with reporters being explicitly asked not to write articles as critical of the government as they would have been before. “They banned us [from getting] any info from LICADHO,” she says, referring to a major human rights NGO in Cambodia. What’s more, the management told reporters that NGO workers are CIA agents.

The Post’s political coverage has been notably dialled down since the takeover, with headlines and articles much more likely to toe the government line. The Post was also notably silent when a massive report on illegal logging was released in May. What should have been a front page story was brushed under the rug without explanation, although Ganapathy’s links to Taib, the logging tycoon, might suggest an explanation.

Cambodia and the press

Unsurprisingly, Cambodia’s press freedom rankings have plummeted this year in multiple worldwide surveys. The country is now 142nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index, 10 spots below where it was just a year ago.

It’s a situation that Ed Legaspi of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance believes will be difficult to “climb out of”—it’s likely that Cambodia will be grappling with this dismal lack of press freedom for a long time to come. This, coupled with the loss of a viable opposition, does not bode well for those struggling against authoritarianism in the country.

The government has yet to make any concerted moves against freelancers, but the oppressive atmosphere still remains. In a recent trip to visit villagers embroiled in a land dispute in Koh Kong, my fixer told authorities I was a tourist and he was my guide, out of fear that we would be arrested.

Wright, who previously reported for The Cambodia Daily, says he’s not particularly concerned about election-time coverage, but that he’s heard of some freelancers being blacklisted by the Ministry of Information.

While freelancers continue to be a valuable source of information, they’re less likely to reach average Cambodians on the ground

While freelancers continue to be a valuable source of information, particularly for international readers, Dara rightly points out that they’re less likely to reach average Cambodians on the ground than the Khmer radio stations or the Post’s Khmer version did. Other journalists and scholars might be reading my pieces in The Diplomat or the South China Morning Post, but disenfranchised Cambodians in the rural provinces are not.

“Independent journalists are still able to work, but not so much independent news outlets. It is more difficult than ever to work as such. But then as long as they continue to try to work professionally and independently there is hope,” Legaspi says.

Dara handed in his one month’s notice to the Post this week. He tries to keep his spirits up, but acknowledges that the situation is grim. “I hope for the best, maybe after the election the government will loosen their grip,” he says. “But I think it’s too late. They already shut down the independent media.”

[UPDATE] Erin Handley, also a former reporter at the Post, tweeted in the evening of 5 July that Sivakumar Ganapathy is no longer the director of The Phnom Penh Post. The new director is Ly Tayseng, who is also a member of a district working group for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

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