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Cambodia's war on the press

Prison, blacklists and intimidation taint the country's media landscape as authorities clamp down

Cambodia's war on the press

A Cambodian man reads the last edition of The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh on Sept. 4, 2017. The newspaper was shut down after it was slapped with a multi-million-dollar tax bill that its publishers said was politically motivated. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

George Wright, Phnom Penh

March 14, 2018

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While just six months ago journalist Yeang Sothearin was chasing stories on politics and rights abuses in Cambodia, the former Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporter now spends his days inside an overcrowded cell in Phnom Penh's squalid Prey Sar prison.

"He said it's a small room but he shares with many prisoners ... more than 20 prisoners. Some sleep on the floor and some sleep on hammocks," said Heng Voeun, the brother of the jailed journalist.

"He said it's a very bad situation."

Yeang Sothearin was arrested in November with Oun Chhin, who also had worked as a reporter for RFA before its Phnom Penh bureau was shuttered two months before a crackdown on independent media.

The pair were initially accused of attempting to launch an unlicensed karaoke production studio, but authorities later revealed they were being investigated for setting up a covert studio for RFA, an accusation they both deny. The pair have been provisionally charged with providing "a foreign state with information which undermines national defense" and face seven to 15 years in jail.

The arrest of Yeang Sothearin and Oun Chhin is indicative of the increasingly perilous environment for journalists operating in the country since RFA, The Cambodia Daily and scores of independent radio stations were shut down last year.

Two reporters from the Daily have since fled the country to avoid "incitement" charges over their coverage of last year's commune election, while Australian filmmaker James Ricketson is facing 10 years for "espionage" after being arrested for flying a drone at an opposition rally in June.

Conditions for independent journalists still inside the country have deteriorated as well, with the Ministry of Information reportedly refusing to issue press passes to those with a history of reporting critically about the government.

Yang Chandara, a reporter who is still filing stories for RFA and requested his current location not be disclosed, said he had been denied a freelance press card after the RFA bureau was shut down.

On visiting the Ministry of Information late last year, he claims an administration officer told himself and four former colleagues that they would "never" be issued with freelance press cards due to their names being on a ministry blacklist.

Ben Paviour, the final politics editor at the Daily, explained a similar experience after not hearing back from the ministry a month after applying for a press pass.

"Eventually, I went in and some low-level officials told me I wasn't going to get a pass because I'd worked at the Daily. There was a list with former Daily and RFA reporters and my name was on it. The guy seemed to be looking at it as he spoke to me," Paviour wrote in an email.

Despite the ministry telling Paviour he could be issued a press pass if he applied with a sponsoring letter from a media outlet, it soon became clear he would not be receiving one despite producing a letter from the South China Morning Post, for whom he had freelanced.

"Per usual, they were making up rules as they went along," he said.

In light of the arrests of the RFA reporters, plus other journalists being detained for not having press passes, Paviour decided to return to the U.S.

"The government was really dialing up the anti-American rhetoric. The whole thing made me paranoid. Maybe I was buying into their scare tactics, or maybe there was genuine risk," he said.

"I didn't really want to test that boundary, so I finished the stories I was working on and left the country."

Nop Vy, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), said that reporters from its Voice of Democracy (VOD) radio show, which was taken off the airwaves amid the crackdown but still operates online, had also been refused press passes due to not being registered with the ministry, despite the fact CCIM is.

Phos Sovann, director of the ministry's general department of information, who Yang Chandara claimed told RFA reporters that the order to block their application came from "upper levels," declined to comment to UCAN. He directed all questions to the ministry's spokesman, who, along with the information minister, did not respond to requests for comment.

Silencing dissent

While the ruling Cambodian People's Party has cited alleged unpaid tax bills, "espionage" and "incitement" for targeting independent media, many believe that the crackdown is part of a broader effort to stifle dissent ahead of July's general election.

The ballot itself has been widely labeled as illegitimate after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved in an internationally condemned move last year. The dissolution came after leader Kem Sokha was arrested and detained on "treason" charges, also widely panned as politically motivated.

Yang Chandara, whose anxieties have increased further due to his video reports on sensitive stories being on a seized hard drive belonging to Oun Chhin, said he believed the crackdown on independent media and the opposition went hand in hand.

"I believe that if the government destroys the opposition party, at the same time they have to destroy the independent media as well because independent media will always cover the truth of what the government is doing," Yang Chandara said. "And what they're doing is very bad."

A reporter working in the country, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, said he had received a call from a high-ranking official warning him "to be careful from now on."

Nop Vy said he believed the creeping influence of China in Cambodian affairs didn't bode well for press freedom.

"For independent media, I think it's also very difficult to be better than before August 2017 because the influence of China on the Cambodian government will make it very challenging to grow or improve the democratic situation, press freedom, freedom of expression," he said.

"I don't want to see this country walking this way. I want to see openness and having a very free, neutral election," he added.

Enemy of the press?

The case of Yeang Sothearin and Oun Chhin has similarities to that of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are facing up to 14 years behind bars in Myanmar under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act after they were arrested while conducting an investigation into killings of Rohingya Muslims.

While the case of the Reuters reporters has received condemnation from across the globe, the plight of the RFA reporters has caught little attention from the international community.

Daniel Bastard, head of Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, said he had received reports of Oun Chhin fainting "many times" in the overcrowded cell.

"This is why we really need to attract international attention about their case," he said, calling for the U.S., EU, Japan, Canada and Australia to impose sanctions against the Cambodian government including visa restrictions and freezing assets.

"Since Cambodian authorities have shown zero effort to stop their violent crackdown on free media, it is time to draw the appropriate conclusions," he said. "It would be a disgrace for democratic governments to go ahead and continue dealing with what has become such an enemy of the press."

For Yeang Sothearin, his main worry was the future of his wife and children, his brother said.

"His main concern is about his family — his wife and his son and daughter. When he was working, the family was 100 percent dependent on him but now he is in detention and his family are in a very, very bad condition," Heng Voeun said.

"We cannot do anything to help him."

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