As the world celebrated Press Freedom Day on Thursday, the mood among Cambodian journalists was subdued following a months-long crackdown on dissent in the media.
The theme of this year’s event was “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law”, and special attention was given to the role of the judiciary in ensuring journalists and media organizations are protected from prosecution for doing their job, according to the United Nations.
"On World Press Freedom Day 2018, I call on governments to strengthen press freedom, and to protect journalists. Promoting a free press is standing up for our right to truth,” António Guterres, United Nations secretary-general, was quoted as saying on UN’s website.
According to a recent Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report, Cambodia’s independent media has been left “in ruins” by a government-led crackdown on the political opposition, civil society and the media ahead of July’s general election.
Cambodia placed 142nd out of 180 countries in this year’s World Press Freedom Index, which said the country “seems dangerously inclined to take the same path as China after closing dozens of independent media outlets and plunging ten places, one of the biggest falls in the region.”
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime launched a ruthless offensive against media freedom in 2017, shutting down more than 30 independent media outlets and jailing several journalists in a completely arbitrary manner. His suppression of independent voices, his increased dominance of the mass media and his meticulous control of social media is a disturbing echo of the methods used in China, which has invested millions of euros in Cambodia’s pro-government media,” the report reads.
"On World Press Freedom Day 2018, I call on governments to strengthen press freedom, and to protect journalists."
In September, the leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was jailed and the CNRP dissolved for alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow Hun Sen. In September, the Cambodia Daily newspaper was closed after the government handed it a hefty tax bill. Days later, Radio Free Asia (RFA) closed its Phnom Penh office under government pressure over tax. In November, two former RFA reporters, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were charged with espionage.
Two former Cambodia Daily reporters -- Aun Pheap, 54, a veteran Cambodian journalist and his Canadian colleague, Zsombor Peter -- have also been charged with “inciting a crime” for asking questions about voting habits. Pheap has since fled the country and has been granted refugee status by the United Nations.
Pheap denies the charges, saying “this is just an excuse to mistreat us.”
“There are some higher people who pushed that lawsuit.”
Voice of Democracy, an opposition-friendly news outlet that gained popularity since the 2013 election, which saw the CNRP gain a large minority of seats in parliament, has also stopped broadcasting.
Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), which runs VOD, said the station’s owners did not offer explanations as to why VOD’s programs were dropped.
Teang has been charged in a separate case and also fled the country last year.
Min Pov, VOD’s news editor, still runs the publication via the group’s Facebook page, which has more than 900,000 likes.
But he says his reporters are taking extra precautions to avoid a backlash from the authorities.
“Some stories are kept aside and not reported,” said Pov, 34, who has worked with VOD for nearly 10 years. “This is because of sensitivity.”
Both the political situation and media crackdown have alarmed experts, NGOs workers, and analysts.
“They don’t dare to comment like before,” he said. ”They just speak off-the-record, not on the record.”
Most Cambodian media are directly or indirectly controlled by the government, giving the ruling party and Hun Sen a pass on most issues.
Phak Seangly, a reporter with the Phnom Penh Post, said the current outlook was not good for news outlets who were critical of the government.
“I have many stories in hand, but the election is approaching so we have to be careful and pay attention to our safety,” he said. “No-one stops us from reporting, but due to the situation, I myself feel a need to step back from reporting very critically.”
Seangly added that, like many Cambodian journalists, his family had become increasingly concerned over his safety and had suggested he looked for another career, but he could not leave a job he had invested so much in and believed in.
“I am happy reporting about forests, logging... I want the media to serve the public, no the parties or powerful individuals,” he said.
Chhiev Hong, Seangly’s wife, said she was “very worried” for her husband’s safety.
“We don’t know whether his writing affects other people or not. And if he goes to the provinces, I can’t sleep, waiting up for him, wondering what time he’ll get back,” she said.
“We can’t stop him, but we are more worried than before.”
Under Watchful Eyes
Evidence of increased government surveillance of journalists is not hard to come by. On a recent reporting trip to Battambang province, a team of VOA reporters was followed by police while conducting interviews with former CNRP officials. At one point, the police interrupted an interview and requested identification cards, saying they were concerned that “people are coming here to cheat villagers.”
“Some stories are kept aside and not reported.”
Another group of police officers following the VOA team filmed reporters as they conducted interviews with a local commune chief and requested a letter stating the purpose of the reporting trip.
From Pen to Plowshares
Many journalists have left the profession, fearing imprisonment if they continue their work.
One former RFA reporter, Morm Moniroth, has turned to farming, saying he wants to “remain silent and want to live my life as an ordinary person.”
“I got a call and threat to shoot me. I devoted my life to this work,” he added.
“My work is a contributing part of respect for democracy and human rights. So I am missing the work.”
Pov has also been urged by his family to stop working as a journalist or reporting on sensitive stories.
“My father-in-law told me to be cautious with reporting. My friends said the same thing. And some suggested I stop working. They said there are other jobs,“ he said.