Eroding Press Freedom: Media Crackdown in Cambodia

The move of Cambodia’s former prime minister, Hun Sen, to shut an independent media, Voice of Democracy (VOD), ahead of the 2023 general elections reflects the 2017 media crackdown playbook. Along with the intimidation and harassment against independent journalists, it erodes Cambodia’s press freedom and democracy.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Khan Leakhena misses the spirit of her team in Voice of Democracy (VOD) Newsroom. She used to work as a reporter and was regularly featured in VOD’s Facebook Live feed for breaking news reporting.

“I remember working as a team, without discrimination. We love each other like siblings, help each other […]. No matter how tired we were, we still created a happy environment. We smiled. We joked with each other, ​​” Leakhena recalled her time at VOD. 

She started to work as an intern around 10 years ago and soon became a reporter at VOD. But not anymore. 

She and her coworkers lost their jobs after Cambodia’s former prime minister, who ruled for almost four decades, Hun Sen, shut down VOD. He ordered to revoke the operating license of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), VOD’s parent company, earlier this year.

It was only several months before the general election in July 2023—an intense moment for politicians and the media.

Leakhena remembers how she received some intimidation before the shutdown happened. Near the end of last year, Leakhena was followed by a stranger on her way home in Phnom Penh​. She noticed the intimidation happened after her coverage of the protest demanding the release of political prisoners in Freedom Park.

A reader arrived to purchase the local  newspaper at a shop  in Phnom Penh.
A reader arrived to purchase the local newspaper at a shop  in Phnom Penh. Photo by Choulay Mech.

Yet another intimidation happened earlier this year. When Leakhena was riding her motorbike after leaving her office in the evening, someone followed her in a car attempting to hit her. Fortunately, she managed to maintain control of her vehicle and avoided the crash.

“This is one of the latest and the worst experiences among other intimidations I have encountered in my ten years working as a journalist,” Leakhena tells New Naratif.

The incident happened after she reported a press conference about the arrest of Thach Setha, the Vice President of the opposition party, Candlelight Party. She says,

“At this stage, press freedom is under attack because a power transition is taking place.”

According to Leakhena, the situation puts the journalists at risk even if they didn’t do anything wrong. It affects media freedom in Cambodia, especially people’s access to information.

“So it does not affect only the journalists, but also the public who are the voters,” she says. 

Media freedom in Cambodia became even worse after the VOD’s shutdown. VOD was one of very few critical and independent media left in Cambodia after the media crackdown in 2017. Most of their news is in-depth and investigative stories on politics and social issues.

Cover
Voice of Democracy (VOD) Cambodia Closure:
The Timeline
MFV Slide 01

9 February 2023

9 February 2023

The reporting of the government whistleblower

Voice of Democracy (VOD) reported and quoted a government spokesperson who said that the son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Hun Manet—who is also the commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces—had allegedly signed off the US$100,000 in aid to Turkey on behalf of Prime Minister Hun Sen. It was a move that is beyond Hun Manet’s authority.

Voice of Democracy (VOD) reported and quoted a government spokesperson who said that the son of Prime Minister Hun Sen—who was also Cambodian general officer and politician—Hun Manet and the commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, had allegedly signed off the US$100,000 in aid to Turkey on behalf of Prime Minister Hun Sen. It was a move that is beyond Hun Manet’s authority.

9 February 2023

Voice of Democracy (VOD) reported and quoted a government spokesperson who said that the son of Prime Minister Hun Sen—who was also Cambodian general officer and politician—Hun Manet and the commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, had allegedly signed off the US$100,000 in aid to Turkey on behalf of Prime Minister Hun Sen. It was a move that is beyond Hun Manet’s authority.

MFV Slide 02

11 February 2023

PM Hun Sen demands an apology from VOD

Prime Minister Hun Sen said on his Facebook that VOD may be confused or intentionally slander the government and Hun Manet in their report.

He demanded VOD to apologise to the government and Hun Manet within 72 hours, then reduced it to 24 hours.

9 February 2023

11 February 2023

PM Hun Sen demands an apology from VOD

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said on his Facebook that VOD may be confused or intentionally slander the government and Hun Manet in their report.

He demanded VOD to apologise to the government and Hun Manet within 72 hours, then reduced it to 24 hours.

9 February 2023

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

MFV Slide 03

12 February 2023

Apology unaccepted

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

9 February 2023

12 February 2023

Apology unaccepted

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

9 February 2023

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

MFV Slide 04

13 February 2023

PM Hun Sen puts an end to VOD

Hun Sen ordered the Ministry of Information to revoke the licence​ from VOD publication, which was under the management of CCIM.

9 February 2023

13 February 2023

PM Hun Sen puts an end to VOD

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

Hun Sen ordered the Ministry of Information to revoke the licence​ from VOD publication.

9 February 2023

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

MFV Slide 05

19 September 2023

Rebirth of VOD

VOD announced that it will start the rebroadcast of its program on Monday, 2 October 2023. All of VOD operation will be managed from its headquarter in Washington State, USA.

However, CCIM emphasised that “all activities related to VOD operations are not related to CCIM”.

9 February 2023

19 February 2023

Rebirth of VOD

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

VOD announced that it will start the rebroadcast of its program on Monday, 2 October 2023. All of VOD operation will be managed from its headquarter in Washington State, USA.

However, CCIM emphasised that “all activities related to VOD operations are not related to CCIM”.

9 February 2023

The Acting Executive Director of CCIM, VOD’s parent company, Chhan Sokunthea, sent a letter of clarification and later an apology letter to Hun Sen, but he refused to accept it.

MFV Slide 06
Additional information
VOD news has been published in Khmer since 2011 and expanded to an English news site in 2019.
At its closure, the VOD had 1.8 million followers on its Khmer Facebook page and 13K followers on its English Facebook page.
Additional Information

VOD news has been published in Khmer since 2011 and expanded to an English news site in 2019.
At its closure, the VOD had 1.8 million followers on its Khmer Facebook page and 13K followers on its English Facebook page.

VOD news has been published in Khmer since 2011 and expanded to an English news site in 2019.
At its closure, the VOD had 1.8 million followers on its Khmer Facebook page and 13K followers on its English Facebook page.
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Not long after VOD’s shutdown, Leakhena worked on another media platform, Kamnotra (also known as For the Record). Kamnotra is an online database platform launched by CCIM in June of this year, compiling publicly available data in the Royal Books—one of only a few accessible channels of information on government decisions—that matter to the Cambodian public, such as the national budget, allocation of forest or lake areas to private developers, etc. 

Leakhena tells New Naratif,

“When I went to work in the morning, they [strangers] would come to take photos of me […] in front of the office, and then they left.”

Sometimes, a stranger would follow her while she worked for Kamnotra. “They want to scare us and want to know what we are doing,” she says.

Leakhena realises it is hard to have a job as a journalist in Cambodia nowadays. The risk is too high.

Media Freedom and the Shrinking Democratic Space of Cambodia

Media shutdown is not a new thing for Cambodia’s government. They have a history of slashing media platforms in 2017, ahead of the 2018 general election. Cambodia’s government shut down radio stations that leased time to Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) Khmer broadcasts. Radio Free Asia (RFA) had to close its bureau in Phnom Penh.

The 2017 crackdown also caused the closure of The Cambodia Daily after the newspaper was slapped with a US$6.3 million tax. The same year, the Phnom Penh Post was sold to a Malaysian businessman linked to Cambodia’s Prime Minister.

Based on the East Asia Forum, silencing the press is one of Cambodia’s government’s strategies to maintain its power. For instance, Freedom House observed that the 2018 election was held “in a severely repressive environment”. The government maintained their pressure on opposition party members, independent press, and protestors with intimidation, prosecutions, and violence.

The 2023 election is even more crucial for Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). After holding the title of one of the world’s longest-ruling prime ministers, Hun Sen will hand over his position to his son, Hun Manet. He could only do it if the CPP won the election.

As expected, the CPP won a landslide victory, claiming 120 out of 125 parliamentary seats. 

As happened in 2018, before the 2023 election, the government shut down independent media outlets, while the only opposition party, Candlelight Party, was disqualified from the election.

Several days before the 2023 election, the government ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block critical media outlets, including Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia, and Kamnotra.

RFA’s spokesperson, in a statement, says the blocking of its online platforms “is in clear violation of Cambodian law and an attempt to censor the free flow of information ahead of the July 23 election”.

The Human Rights experts of the United Nations says the election was conducted in a “shrinking civic and political space”, which affected the “credibility” of the election result. 

VOD’s shutdown only shows the government’s pattern of tackling any critical information toward them. The human rights experts says, “the revocation leaves virtually no free media outlets operating in the country”.

The Cambodian former Minister of Information, Khieu Kanharith, says in April of this year that they have an increasing number of media outlets.

“In the last five years, the number of media institutions has increased significantly, reflecting the openness of freedom of expression and press freedom as well as media potential in Cambodia.”

Nonetheless, the increasing number of media outlets does not reflect the Press Freedom Index. Cambodia’s Press Freedom Index rank dropped to 147 out of 180 countries in 2023 compared to 142 in 2022.

The vendor sells the local newspaper to a customer in Phnom Penh.
The vendor sells the local newspaper to a customer in Phnom Penh. Photo by Choulay Mech.

Based on the Freedom House’s observation, “media ownership is highly concentrated, and several major media outlets are affiliated with the ruling CPP”.  Media Director of CCIM, Ith Sothoeuth, says most of the election reporting comes from state-owned or government-aligned media. 

“The reports were not in-depth reporting or critical news,” Sothoeuth tells New Naratif.

According to Sothoeuth, the independent media landscape in Cambodia has dramatically deteriorated after 2017. The VOD’s shutdown only reflects how the democratic situation is getting worse in Cambodia.

“This is a new threat to Cambodia’s independent press because, as we know, VOD is one of the last remaining independent news outlets that publish critical news or loopholes of the government.”

From Harassment to Self-censorship 

Since the shutdown of VOD, independent journalists have found it more difficult to access official information. They are also more at risk of being harassed and intimidated when they report critical news.

A former VOD reporter, Mech Dara, became a freelance journalist a few months ago. He tells New Naratif,

“I face difficulties in accessing information because I used to work for the news organisation which the government shut down.”

Dara is known for his reporting on political news, corruption, human rights, and human trafficking in Cambodia. Recently, he won an award for his cyber-crime story.

Last May, Dara received backlash after he wrote for Nikkei Asia on SEA Games 2023, which Cambodia hosted. The news talked about the unpaid construction workers for the stadium and the messier side of the event.

Khieu Kanharith, who was the Cambodian Minister of Information at that time, lashed out at Dara on Facebook and called him a “cheap journalist” who serves the interest of foreigners. Kanharith also said the report was a “discredited article”.

Dara is now very conscientious in his reporting. He needs to think twice before deciding to report on several sensitive issues. He would sometimes choose to not put his name in an article’s byline when writing sensitive news.

The pressure, humiliation, and intimidation toward journalists are high. In 2022, CamboJA recorded 35 cases of harassment, including physical attacks, threats of violence, discrimination, arrest, imprisonment, and criminalisation against 54 journalists. CamboJA also recorded eight cases of harassment against journalists in the first quarter of 2023 and another seven in the second quarter of 2023.

“If the pressure continues, it will be difficult for journalists to continue their work, and fewer people will be willing to be in this profession,” Dara says.

“Other journalists and news outlets will start self-censoring stories that they think will cause trouble. They could omit the quotes or information that can cause trouble,” he adds.

Dara says it is reasonable for journalists and media nowadays to do self-censorship in order to be able to continue the journalism works.

The vendor sells the local newspaper to a customer in Phnom Penh.
The vendor sells the local newspaper to a customer in Phnom Penh. Photo by Choulay Mech.

Editor-in-Chief of CamboJA news, Chhorn Chansy, has the same opinion on self-censorship. CamboJA takes extra precautions in news verification and the language they use for each report to avoid seeing their licence revoked. 

CamboJA is a journalist association founded in 2019 by a group of journalists from various outlets, including those formerly working for the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post after the government crackdown in 2017. After that, CamboJA launched CamboJA News with a mission to continue independent reporting. Mainly, they report on social and political news in Cambodia.

“We continue to write news but with caution and verifications,” says Chansy. 

The topics or information that are considered to be sensitive are broad. Chansy says they also have to be careful to use quotes from government officials because, in some cases, the officials won’t take responsibility for what they said and blame it back on the media or journalists.

“We have to verify and double-check before releasing the information,” Chansy explains.

CamboJA does not practise full self-censorship but is nonetheless very careful in reporting and producing its articles. People in its newsroom are avoiding sensitive questions or wordings that may offend the government.

“Because we know that some questions could lead to discrimination or negatively impact the election result, which [the government] can accuse us of incitement,” Chansy says.

Before publishing, they will recheck and mitigate all the articles’ safety levels. He says,

“If we are not careful and the report affects anyone, it is easy [for the government] to use it as a reason to suspend the licence or shut us down.”

Chansy explains this situation has an impact not only on journalists or media but also on people from civil society organisations. He found that most of them avoid giving critical comments to the media because the government’s eyes are all focused on the media. Most people also prefer to use pseudonyms in interviews with journalists.

“As a professional and independent journalist, we are worried about the future of the space for press freedom. We have seen that the space [for press freedom] has continued to shrink,” he says.

Demand for Critical News in Cambodia

As most of the critical media, including VOD, has vanished, people in Cambodia are craving critical information. Most of them rely on other platforms they can access.

A university student in Phnom Penh, Ream Sreypichrothana, started to read VOD in 2020 when she had a mobile phone and access to social media for the first time.

“After the closure of VOD, I accessed news from RFA, VOA, and the Cambodia Daily, as well as [the updates from] activists and other civil society figures [in their Facebook page and telegram group],” says Rothana.

In addition to their Facebook page, human rights and political activists used Telegram channels and groups to share information. Telegram is one of the most popular messaging apps in Cambodia.

Rothana doesn’t follow other news outlets because most focus only on promoting or complimenting the government.

“It is not fake news, but it is the kind of news that I cannot learn anything from and also cannot learn about social issues,” Rothana says, referring to the government-aligned media. 

She has also observed that accessing news for the public has been restricted and more difficult. 

Rothana is very concerned about the state of media freedom in Cambodia, especially the limitations and restrictions to information that have been happening lately. It impacts Cambodia’s youth’s rights to access the critical news.

A man sits down to read his favorite local newspaper near the shop in Phnom Penh.
A man sits down to read his favorite local newspaper near the shop in Phnom Penh. Photo by Choulay Mech.

Another university student in Phnom Penh, Heng Kimsour, says that access to critical information is important for students in Cambodia because it pushes them to participate in developing the country.

Kimsour is an active student who volunteers in a local group that promotes students’ participation in social development, good governance, and environmental protection. She used to get social and political updates from several critical media’s social media accounts, including VOD. It allowed her and her friends to get involved in an online discussion, hoping their voices and concerns could reach the government. She tells New Naratif,

“Without independent news, people would not be able to know the real problem in Cambodia. By knowing the real news, youth can help point out the problem.”

Alongside the precarious circumstances in media freedom in Cambodia, people are also facing a radical shift in the country’s political matters. 

Hun Manet takes the mantle of Cambodia’s new prime minister as his father, Hun Sen, stepped down from his position last August, although Hun Sen maintains his position as the leader of CPP.

Political shifts always bring the unknown to people, including media workers. Sothoeuth hopes that the changes can somehow improve media freedom in Cambodia.

“I hope the new leaders […] will recognise the importance of fundamental freedoms of the people in order to participate in the social and country’s development,” he says.

“I hope that the new leaders will make change and reopen the space for freedom for the people to access their rights, including the press, allowing them to perform their roles which have been guaranteed in the Cambodian Constitution, under the national law and international laws and treaties in which Cambodia has adopted.”

On the other hand, the former Executive Director of CCIM, Teang Pa, said in a statement that VOD will come back to rebroadcast its news program on Monday, 2 October 2023, even though they are no longer a part of CCIM.

“VOD remains upholding its independent principles and continuing its mission in providing true and comprehensive information to Cambodian people, and contribute to enhancing freedom of press… in Cambodia,” he said in a press release and signed as President of VOD.

What’s next? 

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 the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA) through their official site. CamboJA also provides legal assistance to journalists at risk. Alternatively, you can contact the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) to get legal support.  


This story is a part of Media Freedom Voices stories that discuss the media freedom condition of each country across Southeast Asia. You can read our other features about media freedom and discrimination and violence against journalists:

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