(Featured Image provided by REUTERS/Johanna Geron)
Recently, Voice of Democracy (VOD), one of Cambodia’s last independent and non-state-controlled media outlets, was just shut down by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Originally launched in 2003, the Phnom Penh-based radio station was run by the nongovernmental organization Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM). It published its newspapers in both English and their native language of Khmer, often making reports on human rights issues, criminal gangs that enjoy much impunity in Cambodia, and government corruption. The Cambodian government never really liked how VOD was often critical of its decisions, however, it never really took decisive action until last week.
Last week, VOD published an article on its website stating how the lieutenant general of the Cambodian army and son of Hun Sen, Hun Manet, had signed off over $100,000 worth of aid to Türkiye in light of its recent earthquake. This alone isn’t a bad thing, however, VOD said that this was an overstep of his authority. Although (according to Hun Sen), VOD had misinterpreted the facts, and he accused the outlet of purposefully attacking his son to harm the reputation of the Cambodian government.
VOD would later post a formal apology to the Prime Minister and his son on Facebook as well as send an official apology letter to his office the next morning. However, Hun Sen refused to accept the apology and stated that the newsroom’s employees “should look for jobs elsewhere” on Facebook. This is what led to Hun Sen officially revoking VOD’s media license on Monday, stopping all broadcasts immediately afterward. The official statement by the Information Ministry said that the license was being revoked “because it [VOD] has seriously violated the ethics of professional journalism and did not make a correction according to the press law, affecting the honor and prestige of the government.”
Many former employees took to social media to talk about the sudden shutdown of the company. They always knew that this day would eventually come due to VOD’s criticisms of the government, but not this soon. “We were expecting it to happen but not so quickly. We fought for the truth. We always have but clearly some people could not handle it,” said former VOD reporter Mech Dara. “We have to face the reality and the challenges that come along with it but we will take it one day at a time.”
This isn’t the first time a media outlet has been suddenly shut down like this, as during Hun Sen’s tenure as Prime Minister since 1985, he has become notorious for clamping down on local media. Back in 2017, the Cambodian government forced the Cambodia Daily newspaper to close after the government ordered it to pay a $6.3 million government tax. In 2018, the Phnom Penh Post had been sold to a Malaysian businessman with ties to the government, making several of the paper’s senior members quit.
Moreover, the shutdown of VOD came months before national elections are to take place in July, which makes many assume that the shutdown may have actually been politically motivated. Many international human rights organizations condemned the Cambodian government for having gotten rid of its last independent media outlet for political gain. “Going after VOD is a good indication that scheduled July 23 poll will be neither free nor fair,” said Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson. “The Cambodian people are the ultimate losers because they have lost one of the last remaining sources of independent news on issues affecting their lives, livelihoods, and human rights.”
Many foreign ambassadors of Western countries also spoke out against the situation. “We are deeply troubled by the abrupt decision to revoke Voice of Democracy’s (VOD) media license,” stated the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia. “The freedom of press in Cambodia has lost one of its last remaining independent media outlets.” said the German Embassy.
Now, dozens living in Phnom Penh gather to protest VOD’s closure in the name of the free press.