WASHINGTON, DC —
Cambodia has drawn sharp criticism from the United States, and press freedom and human rights organizations, after the government suddenly suspended several radio stations, expelled an international NGO, and threatened to close an English-language newspaper.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington on Aug. 23 that the U.S. was “deeply concerned by the deterioration in Cambodia’s democratic climate” and noted the “troubling government actions curtailing freedom of the press and civil society’s ability to operate.”
Nauert said the U.S. Ambassador had met with Cambodian officials to advocate for a fair application of tax laws and other administrative measures that have been used to pressure or close down media and civil society organizations.
Senator John McCain, Congressmen Alan Lowenthal and Steve Chabot all issued statements condemning the crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. Lowenthal told VOA by phone Friday that a free and fair vote in Cambodia’s 2018 general elections was being threatened by rapidly worsening repression under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
He said Washington and the international community should take steps against Cambodia to reverse its slide into authoritarianism. “I think we must really begin to look at that and really begin to put much more economic pressures on Cambodia,” Lowenthal said.
A Crackdown Before Elections
Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia through a mix of political skill and force for three decades. In the 2013 general elections, his CPP narrowly beat the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), but the results were disputed and triggered demonstrations that were crushed by security forces. The CPP appears to now be cracking down on independent media and civil society to weaken any political challenge to its rule next year.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warned the recent government measures could undermine the election process.
“Ahead of next year’s general elections, we call on the government to guarantee full political and civil rights, and media freedoms,” Liz Throssell, the commissioner's spokesperson, said Friday. She added that the sudden closure of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for allegedly violating the 2015 Law on NGOs appears to have occurred “without due process.”
NDI, a U.S. Democratic Party linked NGO, had been promoting democracy and election monitoring in Cambodia for 25 years. NDI President Kenneth Wollack said last week he was “surprised and saddened” by the decision.
“We have been transparent in our work, and have made every attempt to comply with the law. It is our sincere hope the Cambodian government will review its decision,” he said.
Independent Media Shut Down
The government recently also forced two independent local radio stations - Moha Nokor and Voice of Democracy - to close for allegedly violating their contracts with the Ministry of Information. The Phnom Penh Post reported that a dozen other local stations were also ordered to stop broadcasting.
Some stations regularly aired critical, Khmer-language news reports by Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), two global, U.S. government-funded radio stations.
RFA and VOA's offices in Cambodia have been warned that they supposedly owe the government back taxes, as have a number of local human rights groups, and The Cambodia Daily, a long-running English-language newspaper.
Last week, Hun Sen publicly called the newspaper “a thief” and warned it will have to pay $6.3 million in alleged taxes and interest by September 4, or face being shut down. Its American publisher said the newspaper had been slapped with a sudden, arbitrarily calculated tax amount and has demanded a transparent audit.
Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith denied in a news conference Thursday that the government was cracking down on press freedom, and claimed that RFA and VOA programs could still be aired through some other radio stations.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a statement Thursday calling on Cambodia to end its attack on press freedom.
“Cambodian authorities should stop threatening to close The Cambodia Daily for alleged tax evasion and allow it to continue publishing without fear of reprisal,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative. “Hun Sen's government is using the tax department to silence one of Cambodia's most prominent independent newspapers.”
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Asia Director, also warned in a statement released Friday, that the “shutdown of independent media outlets and a respected democracy promotion group shows that Hun Sen is intensifying efforts to curb criticism of his rule."
“Diplomats and donors should put Hun Sen on notice that if he doesn’t reverse course, the elections in 2018 won’t be considered credible.”
John Lansing, CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that oversees the RFA and VOA broadcasters, expressed worry over the closure of “key FM radio stations,” which will deprive Cambodians of “critical means… to access accurate and independent news about Cambodia and the world.”
“We call on the Cambodian government to reverse this decision to muzzle objective sources of news and to allow all impacted stations to resume normal operations immediately,” he said.