PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — A handful of protesters gathered in Phnom Penh on Monday to condemn the shutdown of one of Cambodia’s last independent media outlets, with rights groups also slamming the portal’s closure just months before national elections.
Prime Minister Hun Sen — among the world’s longest-serving leaders — ordered the shuttering of the online Khmer- and English-language outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) on Sunday over what he said was an erroneous report about his eldest son.
Sitting in the meeting room at VOD, journalist Khan Leakhena burst into tears as management halted broadcasting at 10 am following the revocation of the outlet’s licence.
“I have been here since I was an intern,” she said. “I do not want to cry, but I am so shocked.”
“Shutting down VOD is like shutting down the voice of the people,” she added.
Outside the outlet’s offices, protester Prum Chantha said: “It’s only VOD that speaks about the truth… The government must not shut them down.”
“They are cracking down (on VOD) so that other media outlets don’t dare to rise up, to speak the truth,” she added. “Other media outlets will be scared — this is a threat.”
A dozen police officers blocked the road as information ministry officials delivered the closure notice.
In the now-empty VOD studio, Ith Sothoeuth, media director of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media which oversees VOD, told reporters: “For now we will stay silent”.
“We hope that this is not the end of everything yet,” he said, adding they were working with stakeholders to find a solution.
In the run-up to the election later this year, Hun Sen has increasingly cracked down on dissent and freedom of speech.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday condemned the “outrageous and ridiculous order” to shut VOD, which “barely masks the government’s real intent to further suppress media freedom”.
“Going after VOD is a good indication that (the) scheduled July 23 poll will be neither free nor fair,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
“The real losers in all of this are the people of Cambodia.”
‘A clear warning’
VOD, which has broadcast since 2003, published a story on February 9 alleging that Hun Sen’s son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, had signed off on funds to help earthquake-hit Turkey.
Hun Manet has denied the claim, with Hun Sen stating that he himself authorised the $100,000 relief package.
The Cambodian leader demanded an apology from VOD but has refused to reconsider his decision to revoke its licence even after the outlet complied.
As of Monday afternoon, some Cambodian internet service providers had blocked access to the site, requiring readers to use a VPN.
“This is a blatant attempt to slam the door on what’s left of independent media in the country,” said Amnesty International.
They added it was “a clear warning to other critical voices months before Cambodia’s national elections”.
Damar Juniarto, executive director and co-founder of digital rights group SAFENet, called the shuttering “bad for democracy”.
The United States embassy said it was “deeply troubled” by VOD’s closure, urging authorities to reconsider.
The German and French embassies also expressed concerns about the move in the run-up to the national polls.
In 2017, the Cambodian Daily was forced to close after it was hit with a disputed multi-million dollar tax bill, though it later restarted operations online.
And ahead of the 2018’s elections, many independent outlets were forced to close after being stripped of their operating licences.