International embassies and other organisations in Cambodia have raised grave concerns about the government’s snap decision to shutter independent media Voice of Democracy (VOD) after revoking its license.
On February 9, VOD Khmer published an article that quoted government spokesperson Phay Siphan saying, “It is not wrong for Hun Manet to play his father’s role in providing aid to Turkey.” Hun Manet later denied playing that role, and called for VOD to issue a correction and provide proof he had signed the document authorising aid.
On February 11, Prime Minister Hun Sen gave VOD 72 hours to apologise for the news report regarding his eldest son and potential Prime Minister-in-waiting. In a Facebook post, the Cambodian premier attached a letter from VOD stating it was “regretful for confusions” regarding the article in question.
However, Hun Sen rejected the apology, and on Sunday evening revoked VOD’s license and ordered it to stop all broadcasting by 10am the next day.
On the morning of the closure, members of Khmer Thavarek, the NagaWorld union group and other organisations gathered outside VOD’s office in Phnom Penh to protest against the move and urge the government to restore the media organisation’s license.
As of 10am on February 13, VOD’s Khmer and English websites have been blocked by major internet and mobile service providers in Cambodia.
Since the forced closure of one of the Kingdom’s last independent media platforms, there has been an outpouring of grief on social media, alongside the hashtag #SaveVOD. “I am truly saddened that this national journalism has been shut down,” a former VOD reporter of 10 years wrote on Facebook.
Another post on Twitter said, “Please join us together to #SaveVoD. @VODKhmer plays [a] significant role to promote access to information and make [the] public & the government well informed. In solidarity and respect to all VOD team!”
In addition, embassies based in Cambodia have voiced concerns. The US Embassy issued a statement saying it is “deeply troubled” by the decision. It added, “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. For more than 20 years, VOD has provided objective, fact-based reporting on issues that serve the interests of the Cambodian people.”
A statement from the European Union in Cambodia, also representing the embassies of Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Poland and Portugal, said it is “deeply concerned” about the move.
“This decision seriously undermines media freedom and pluralism, which are essential for any open and free society. Access to information and freedom of speech are basic tenets of a democratic society and the foundation for free and fair elections,” it added.
VOD was officially shuttered on the morning that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was scheduled to land in the Kingdom for an official visit from February 13 to 15. In a statement, the German embassy said it is “highly concerned that freedom of press in Cambodia has lost one of its last remaining independent media outlets with the closure of VOD”.
It added, “Germany believes in the free access of information as the basis for free and fair elections.”
The French embassy also issued a statement expressing its “great concern” about the closure of an “independent and professional media outlet”.
The British Embassy additionally weighed in with concerns, saying it believes that “strong, independent media and journalists are vital to democratic societies and play an essential role in supporting free and fair electoral processes”.
Australian ambassador to Cambodia, Justin Whyatt, tweeted, “Concerned by today's closure of Voice of Democracy. An independent media is vital in a democracy and helps many voices to be heard. We hope VOD is permitted to resume operations.”
The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) also issued a statement slamming the decision it dubs the “most obvious and objectively politically-motivated attack on what remains of the free press in Cambodia we’ve seen for years”.
“This is a deja vu for reporters who worked through the closure of the ‘Cambodia Daily’ and the zombification of the ‘Phnom Penh Post’ - shuttering VOD impoverishes an already malnourished information ecosystem and risks Cambodia becoming a blackhole of information, like Laos,” it added.
Ahead of the 2017 elections, the ‘Cambodia Daily’ was ordered to close after being slapped with a $6.3 million tax bill. This was followed by the ‘Phnom Penh Post’ being bought by a Malaysian businessman whose public relations firm has worked for the Cambodian government. This prompted several senior reporters to quit.
A joint statement co-signed by OPCC, CamboJA and 91 other media and civil organisations added, “We call on the government to resolve the issue in a calm, professional and respectful manner that is in line with Cambodian law and that does not do lasting damage to Cambodia’s media landscape. We believe that the closure of VOD would represent a grave step backwards for both press freedoms and the rule of law in Cambodia.”
Talking about the closure of VOD, the Asian Network for Free Elections called the move a “blatant attack on media freedoms and a gross violation of the Cambodian people’s right to access information”.
“The shutdown will have serious implications for Cambodia’s democratic process and set a dangerous precedent for media freedom in the country. This is especially concerning ahead of the upcoming general election, when citizens must have access to diverse and independent sources of information to make informed decisions,” it continued.
NGO Mother Nature Cambodia also offered its support. “The organisation [VOD] has played a significant role in being the voice of the people, helping promote social justice, and protecting environmental rights. Apparently, recently, through professional newscasts, VOD played a major role in protecting Mt. Tamao Lake and preventing the construction of coastal landfills etc.”
In response, Pen Bona, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Information, said, “We do our job, so doing something does not depend on any foreigner. The closure or revocation of the license has been widely criticised, and there have been some criticisms.”
He added that this is proof that “multi-party liberal democracy in Cambodia has always existed”.
“There is no newspaper that is the main character, or any newspaper that is indispensable; it is not like that. In case the Ministry of Information sees that any newspaper does not [show] respect, [act] professionally, [or] abuses others, we can revoke the license,” Bona said.
He added that the loss of VOD does not result in Cambodians having access to information in the media. “There are many newspapers where people can get information from,” he said.