Cambodian Independent News Site to Cease Operation on Prime Minister’s Order

Cambodian Independent News Site to Cease Operation on Prime Minister’s Order
A file image of the Cambodian national flag. (Vanna Phon/Unsplash)
Aldgra Fredly

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered the closure of one of the country’s few remaining independent news sites for “attacking” his son in a report regarding Cambodia’s relief assistance to quake-hit Turkey.

Local media Voice of Democracy (VOD) had its license revoked at 10 a.m. on Feb. 13. The Ministry of Information said the company has failed to issue an apology for a misquoted article published last week.

In the article, VOD claims that Lt. Gen. Hun Manet—Hun Sen’s son and presumed successor—authorized the arrangement to provide $100,000 in aid to quake-hit Turkey on his father’s behalf.

Authorizing such an agreement would exceed his jurisdiction because only the prime minister can decide on foreign aid. Hun Manet denied the claims and urged VOD to provide evidence of his signing the agreement.

Hun Sen also demanded that VOD issue a public apology within 72 hours.

VOD did issue a letter expressing regret for its mistake and explained that it had quoted government spokesperson Phay Siphan. But this did not appease the Cambodian leader who has ruled the country since 1985.

Siphan allegedly told VOD’s reporter that “the fact that Mr Hun Manet acted on behalf of his father by signing documents to give aid to Turkiye, which has suffered from an earthquake, is not wrong since his father Prime Minister Hun Sen is busy,” according to Khmer Times.

Hun Sen was dissatisfied with the response, claiming that the word “regret” does not amount to an apology.

“Can the use of the word ’regret‘ or ’asking for forgiveness’ replace the word ‘apology’? For me, it’s unacceptable,” he stated on Facebook, according to Khmer Times. “Is this explanation intended to put the blame on the government official? Let Phay Siphan sue them in court.”

His son heads the army and has been nominated by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to succeed him when he steps down. The next election is in July.

With most opponents silenced, including the only credible opposition party, Hun Sen is expected to lead his party to another victory in a general election scheduled for later this year.

VOD has reported extensively on sensitive issues, such as land grabbing and criminal gangs operating with near impunity to carry out internet scams with people, especially foreigners, tricked into working under conditions of near slavery.

A previous media clampdown has already forced several outlets out of business on disputed grounds that they had not properly paid their taxes.

‘Ridiculous Order’

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the Cambodian government “has never liked VOD’s reporting, and given Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authoritarian attitude towards independent media, it’s likely VOD has been living on borrowed time for a while.

“But that’s no excuse for this outrageous and ridiculous order to shut them down based on the silliest of rationales about who signed a government document to give aid to Turkey. This flimsy and absurd decision barely masks the government’s real intent to further suppress media freedom.”

He said that historically, Hun Sen and his party usually crack down hard on any independent voices ahead of a national election.

“Going after VOD is a good indication that [the] scheduled July 23 poll will be neither free nor fair,” Robertson said.

VOD spokesperson Sothoeuth Ith said after receiving the closure order, “So for now, we will stay silent, we will not continue our broadcast.

“Maybe, hopefully this is not the end of everything.”
In what appeared to refer to the possibility that Hun Sen might eventually restore VOD’s license, he added, “We will try our best to work with all relevant stakeholders, and hopefully, a solution can be realized.”

The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia said in a statement that it was “deeply troubled by the abrupt decision” of the Cambodian government to revoke VOD’s license and urged the government to revisit its decision.

“A free and independent press plays a critical role in a functioning democracy, providing the public and decision-makers with facts and holding governments to account,” it said. “For more than 20 years, VOD has provided objective, fact-based reporting on issues that serve the interests of the Cambodian people.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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