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US, Australia lead calls to reinstate Cambodia's 'Voice of Democracy'

PM Hun Sen ordered shutdown of country’s independent media outlet taking issue with a news report about his son

Supporters of online media outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) hold placards in front of the VOD office in Phnom Penh on Feb. 13 after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said VOD would have its operating license revoked for a news report about his son

Supporters of online media outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) hold placards in front of the VOD office in Phnom Penh on Feb. 13 after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said VOD would have its operating license revoked for a news report about his son. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 14, 2023 05:10 AM GMT

Updated: February 15, 2023 05:55 AM GMT

The United States and Australian embassies are leading calls for the reinstatement of the independent media outlet, Voice of Democracy (VOD), which was closed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for apparently upsetting his son and heir Hun Manet.

However, such calls are likely to fall on deaf ears with state media going into overdrive in an attempt to justify a decision that seemed way out of proportion and made in response to a journalist who reported what a government spokesman had said.

The reporter quoted, accurately, the government spokesman as saying Hun Manet had signed off on a US$100,000 aid package to Turkey in response to the Feb. 6 earthquake.

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Such a misstep from a government spokesman would normally warrant a simple clarification.

But Hun Sen demanded an apology from the news organizations and when the response fell short of his expectations, the license held by the Cambodia Centre for Independent Media (CCIM), which was responsible for VOD, was revoked.

 “The mistake of VOD is a serious professional misconduct that affects the honor and dignity of the Royal Government,” Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said.

“We are deeply troubled by the abrupt decision"

The Secretary of State for the Information Ministry, Pen Bona, added: “… the misleading news made by VOD could be an intention to cause chaos among top leaders.”

This episode has upset the man slated to take over from his father because — as Pen Bona noted — the package was actually signed off by Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng who was charged with such duties while Hun Sen was abroad.

“We are deeply troubled by the abrupt decision to revoke @VOD English and @VOD Khmer’s media license. A free & independent press is the cornerstone of any functioning democracy. We urge authorities to revisit this decision,” US ambassador Patrick Murphy tweeted.

“Cambodia needs many Voices of Democracy,” he added.

His sentiments were echoed by the Australian ambassador Justin Whyatt who said last night that he was “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,” he said.

The Overseas Press Club (OPCC), quite rightly, highlighted the misogynistic response — there is no other word for it — from government sycophants who defended the decision.

The OPCC said in a statement — endorsed by 93 civil society groups from Cambodia, The Philippines and Indonesia — that the decision made ahead of the July national elections represents a fresh wave of intimidation tactics against the country’s dwindling independent media.

“This is unacceptable in any circumstance"

“The closure of VOD and the harassment of a female VOD journalist undermine the government’s own claims regarding respect for the free press in Cambodia,” it said, adding the closure mirrors the 2017 closure of the Cambodia Daily and the 2018 sale of the Phnom Penh Post.

“Moreover, we rebuke the abusive and misogynistic language used by [media commentator] Mr. Pheng Vannak and others on social media against the female reporter who authored the VOD article in question.”

The outbursts were as childish as they were dreadful, which under Cambodia’s culture of defamation would be potential litigation. But journalists don’t sue.

In a separate statement, Mercy Barends, chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and member of the Indonesian House of Representatives, said the closure due to a single perceived ‘mistake’ was a blatant violation of freedom of the press.

“This is unacceptable in any circumstance, even more so when elections are set to be held in a few months’ time,” she said.

“Cracking down on a media outlet like VOD at the first opportunity not only serves to silence it but also anyone else who might consider writing anything critical of the government. How can there be free and fair elections under such a climate of fear and self-censorship?” she asked.

The Asian Network for Free Elections also said 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 added.

"Its closure will not play well with those in Washington"

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said the closure was a devastating blow to media freedom in the country and will have an impact across Cambodian society.

“Voice of Democracy has served as an important mainstay of independent investigative reporting and objective criticism for years, even as the Cambodian government’s tolerance for critical views has markedly declined,” he said.

VOD was prominent last year in breaking human trafficking stories and analysts — who declined to be named — said its closure will not play well with those in Washington responsible for dropping Cambodia to the lowest Tier 3 level on its trafficking index.

It’s also a decision that won’t sit well with the EU, which withdrew trade preferences worth about US$1.1 billion in 2020 and has threatened to withdraw all preferences under its ‘Everything But Arms’ policy if this year’s ballot is found not to be free or fair.

The backlash from VOD’s closure is still to play out.


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