CAMBODIA: Free Press on the Run

THE MEDIA landscape in Cambodia has dramatically changed over the past two years. Today there is a shortage of independent, impartial, and rigorous news in Cambodia. Information mostly circulates either through media aligned with the government, or as unverified information on social media. This new media landscape severely curtails citizens’ right to access to independent and critical information. These developments also hinder the work of civil-society organizations, which have to devote a significant amount of resources in obtaining reliable and verifiable information.

The year 2018 in fact marked a full year that the Cambodian people had been kept in the dark and without much access to independent information. In September 2017, several independent media outlets were shut down, a move coinciding with a political crackdown that had the Supreme Court dissolving the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and banning 118 of its high-ranking officials from political involvement. The CNRP’s 5,007 elected local-level officials – up from just 40 in the previous 2012 elections – were also removed from their positions as commune leaders and councillors. This happened less than a year ahead of a national election in July 2018 that was expected to be closely contested by the CNRP.

Independent media and civil society were then accused by the Hun Sen government of supporting the opposition party. The government linked media outlets such as Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA), Voice of Democracy (VOD), and The Cambodia Daily to a supposed “colour revolution”, accusing them of working to overthrow the government. Some prominent CSOs, including the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media (CCIM), Licadho, and Adhoc and others, were also linked to the purported revolution. The U.S. NGO National Democratic Institute (NDI) was forced to close its office in Cambodia, as was the U.S.-run radio programme RFA.

Between August and September 2017, 32 FM radio frequencies broadcasting RFA, VOA, and VOD across 20 provinces were shut down by the government, under the pretext that the stations had failed to comply with administrative regulations. On 11 September 2017, RFA itself decided to close down its Phnom Penh bureau, noting the “increasingly threatening and intimidating rhetoric”, as part of the “government’s relentless crackdown on independent voices”.

The dailies’ debacle

The Cambodia Daily officially announced its closure in September 2017 as well, citing “extra-legal threats” by the government to “close the Daily, freeze its accounts, and prosecute the owner for the actions of the previous owner”. Just weeks earlier, tax authorities had issued The Cambodia Daily a US$6.3-million tax bill without a prior audit or legal proceedings. After the newspaper’s closure, the website of the Cambodia Daily was arbitrarily blocked.

Weeks before the July 2018 elections, it was the turn of Cambodia’s last independent newspaper to fall, albeit not through a forced closure. In May 2018, the Phnom Penh Post changed ownership in an opaque sale, after being issues a tax bill of US$3.9 million. The new owner, Malaysian businessman Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, is the head of a PR firm that has worked for Hun Sen. Shortly after taking ownership of the Post, Ganapathy reportedly demanded the removal of an article detailing his alleged links to the Hun Sen government.

This led to the sacking of the paper’s editor in chief, Kay Kimsong, which in turn compelled 13 Post journalists and editors to resign, along with its CEO, Michael Holms. In early July 2018, Ganapathy was replaced by Ly Tayseng as chairman of the Board of Directors. Ly Tayseng is a Cambodian lawyer who represented Ganapathy during the Post’s sale, and who appears to also have ties to the ruling party.

The Media Ownership Monitor Cambodia project has revealed highly concentrated media ownership, low transparency, and a problematic dependency of media outlets on the government. Done jointly by Reporters without Borders and CCIM, the project was conducted initially from September to December 2015, and then relaunched in 2018. Among its recent findings is that about 95 percent of Cambodia’s media outlets are now affiliated with the government and ruling party. For instance, a Hun Sen ally, Kith Meng, is chairman and CEO of the Royal Group, the parent company of CNC, CTN, My TV, One TV, and Radio Phnom Penh FM 94MHz. The Prime Minister’s daughter Hun Mana is also a major media owner. The media project also found that these media outlets practise self-censorship and suffer the absence of critical reporting.

Even media clubs and associations have not escaped links to the Hun Sen administration. In large part because they are almost invariably government-aligned, they do little to promote the safety and security of journalists. The Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia (UJFC), for example, was established in 2016 by Huy Vannak, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of the Interior Ministry. He is also a high-ranking member of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC), headed by Hun Many, Hun Sen’s son.

In January 2019, the Cambodia-China Journalists Association was set up and co-chaired by Soy Sopheap, general director of Deum Ampil Media Centre, and a Chinese journalist, Liu Xiao Quang. Soy Sopheap also works as a commentator for BTV, which is owned by Hun Mana.

Online disquiet

Yet while the government controls mainstream media, there has been a proliferation of small online media outlets that are least somewhat outside its control. Hundreds of websites and Facebook pages have been set up, some of which have registered with the Ministry of Information (MOI). Many media outlets such as VOD, VOA, and RFA have also turned to online platforms to continue broadcasting news.

In truth, the number of Internet users in Cambodia has risen rapidly, reaching 14 million in a country of only 16.2 million, according to an official Telecommunications Ministry estimate. The number of social media users meanwhile has been estimated to have reached seven million in 2018 and is expected to hit eight million in 2019.

For those with access to the Internet, digital platforms have become the best option for expressing their opinions and concerns. The government, however, has been taking action to control, pressure, and intimidate its citizens online.

In a move that some have claimed is an attempt to censor the Hun Sen regime’s critics, the government has ordered all domestic and international Internet traffic in the Kingdom to pass through a Data Management Centre (DMC) that has been newly created by the state-owned Telecom Cambodia. The government itself has said that it closely monitors news and social networking sites “to prevent the spread of information that can cause social chaos and threaten national security”. In February 2018, Cambodian police arrested a former opposition party activist on charges of insulting the ruling Cambodian People’s Party after the woman, who had fled the country to avoid arrest, was expelled from neighbouring Thailand for overstaying her visa. Sam Sokha had posted a video on 1 April 2017, where she was shown throwing a shoe against a billboard bearing the photos of Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin. She could be heard saying on the video: “These are the men who are destroying our nation.”

In addition, a prakas (a regulation adopted by a minister) signed on 23 May 2018 by the ministers of information, interior, and telecommunications, said that officials from the three ministries would form an inter-ministerial working group to investigate any online media platforms that spread “fake news” and take appropriate action under the Kingdom’s laws. By January 2019, authorities had already arrested at least one individual – CNRP activist Kong Mas — in Phnom Penh for incitement and allegedly disseminating fake news, although it is unclear if he did so online or offline.

In any case, as early as March 2018, 31 percent of Cambodians who responded in a survey reported feeling “somewhat unfree” or “very unfree” to express themselves openly on social media. Their fear was not exactly without basis. Months later, in August 2018, media reports would quote the Prime Minister himself as saying that the government could pinpoint a social media user’s location and identity in less than eight minutes.

Election-time clampdown

To be sure, the government has not been shy in showing its iron hand particularly during election time. In the runup to the commune elections in 2017 and to the national election in 2018, the National Election Committee (NEC) released a Code of Conduct outlining a long list of forbidden activities during the election campaign period. Among other things, the Code prohibits journalists from publishing or broadcasting “confusing” information that leads to a “loss of trust in the election”. They are also banned from expressing personal ideas or prejudgments of any event being covered, reporting on rumours or baseless information, and insulting a national institution, political party, or candidate.

The MOI, meanwhile, has threatened to revoke the licences of media organizations and shutter their businesses if they failed to abide by the NEC’s guidelines.

Apparently not content with that, on 28 and 29 July 2018, on the eve and day of the national assembly elections, the Ministry of Interior ordered Cambodian Internet service providers to block at least 17 news websites. Among these were the websites of VOD, VFA, VOA, RFA, Vayo FM Radio,, and The Independent Network for Social Justice. The Phnom Penh Post’s website was also reportedly inaccessible. The websites were unblocked a few days after the election.

The reason cited by the authorities for blocking the websites was that it was Cambodia’s “white day”, as imposed by electoral law (in which political parties are prohibited from campaigning during the 24 hours prior to the ballots). The law, however, appears to place no restrictions on the media. In relation to the blocking, a Ministry of Information spokesperson was quoted as saying, “[F]rankly speaking, we cannot control the concerned media outlets. That’s it.” Notably, media outlets generally considered as being pro-government (such as the Khmer Times and Fresh News Asia) were not affected, and were able to continue normal operations during this period.

More controls in the making?

In the meantime, Prime Minister Hun Sen has kept up having annual meetings with journalists, something that he began doing in 2017. The event, usually held in a luxury hotel, usually takes place sometime in January. Most media workers in Cambodia are invited, with the exception of those from independent media, NGOs, or foreign-run outlets. The meetings provide no opportunities for participating journalists to share their grievances with the government officials present or to make suggestions to the government. Instead, the Prime Minister has used the time to talk about the government’s plans for the media.

In his meeting with journalists in January 2019, Hun Sen recommended that relevant ministries, particularly the MOI and Ministry of Telecommunications, draft a Cybercrime Law, amend the Press Law, and push forward the Access to Information (A2I) Law.

CSOs have raised concerns over a previous draft of the Cybercrime Law that was leaked in 2014, saying that it was geared more towards controlling digital media and Internet users rather than combating crime. The Cambodian Press Law was passed in 1995 and has not been amended since; some of its articles will likely conflict with the A2I Law, should that pass. And while many hope that the A2I Law will promote access to public information and will be useful for investigative journalists, the government has also been busy tightening its control over freedom of expression and freedom of the press through other regulations and laws.

But the government may be feeling a little bit more confident about some media organizations now that the elections are done with, at least for now. In December 2018, the government stated that RFA was welcome to reopen its office in Cambodia, claiming that the closure of its Phnom Penh office in 2017 was “self-initiated” and that no pressure had been applied. The government has also said that The Cambodia Daily might resume operations – although only on the condition that the paper pays outstanding taxes.

That is literally a steep price to pay for the Daily’s owners. But the Cambodian public is paying an even higher cost with the current lack of an independent press. Indeed, the situation has made it harder to hold public officials to account, as fewer human-rights violations, social issues, and incidents of corruption are being brought to the spotlight.

The Internet as information source has thus gained increasing importance in Cambodia, with reporting on social issues and monitoring cases of injustice across the country now online. Then again, this also presents its own challenges, with a digital-media environment polluted by fake news, disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech – and ever the target of a government bent on absolute control. Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), May 2019