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Cambodian Youth Petition Government to Reinstate Broadcaster

FILE - The recording studio at the office of online media outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) is pictured in Phnom Penh, Feb. 13, 2023, after Cambodian Prime Minister said VOD would have its operating license revoked.

With elections just a few months away, young Cambodians have a message for their government: "We are hungry for truthful and independent news."

More than 10 youth organizations in the country have petitioned Cambodia's Ministry of Information calling for authorities to reinstate independent media outlet Voice of Democracy.

The outlet was closed on February 13, on the orders of Prime Minister Hun Sen over its coverage of Cambodian aid to help Turkey after that nation's devastating earthquake in early 2023.

Authorities revoked Voice of Democracy's license and blocked access inside Cambodia to its English and Khmer-language news websites.

The closure has left Cambodians without a reliable source of independent news, the youth organizations have said.

FILE - Supporters of online media outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) hold placards in front of VOD office in Phnom Penh, Feb. 13, 2023.
FILE - Supporters of online media outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) hold placards in front of VOD office in Phnom Penh, Feb. 13, 2023.

Members of the organizations gathered at the Information Ministry in the capital, Phnom Penh, on Friday to deliver their petition. The groups included the Khmer Youth Capacity Development, Youth for Social Development and Democracy, and Youths for Awareness Club.

Ke Chamroeun, 28, who acted as a representative for the groups, told reporters that while Cambodia has several media outlets, not all of them are active in covering news that is beneficial to audiences.

"Most of them [media outlets] only disseminate propaganda rather than the social issues which need a solution," he said.

Arn Sreyoun, 21, said most media in Cambodia fail to report sensitive stories including those focused on politics, corruption, deforestation, and land disputes.

"We need an independent media outlet to report about those issues," said the Phnom Penh-based university student.

Soeun Makara, who also joined the groups presenting the petition to the ministry, told reporters, "We are hungry for truthful and independent news."

"Providing untruthful news to the youths is like killing their hearts," said the 27-year-old.

Stressing the importance of the media when elections are scheduled for July 23, the petition said, "We think that independent media will play a very crucial role in ensuring the free and fair process of the upcoming national election."

The petition cited the Cambodia Press Law on how authorities should handle media violations. Under that law, authorities can issue fines, order a broadcaster to run a correction, or temporarily cease operations rather than revoke the license.

In the case of Voice of Democracy, the broadcaster sent two letters to Hun Sen expressing "regret" and ran a follow-up story to clarify its reporting. But the move to revoke the license remained.

Chhan Sokunthea, the director for media development at the Cambodia Center for Independent Media, which oversees Voice of Democracy, said she didn't expect any changes soon.

"I don't have any hope of reinstating [the license] since it is the order of the prime minister," she told VOA Khmer.

In response to the youth petition, the Ministry of Information issued a statement that defended the action taken against Voice of Democracy.

"The revocation of any media outlet license follows legal procedures," the statement said. "The revocation of media outlets which violate law, seriously abuse professional and ethical code of conduct, defy other people's right and not admit the mistakes can't be considered as restriction of rights to freedom, threats or persecution against media or journalists."

Media analysts viewed Voice of Democracy as one of the few independent news outlets left in Cambodia.

Founded in 2003, its journalists took on big issues including deforestation, cyber scams, and a repressive political space in the lead-up to the 2022 local elections.

In the past year, it published dozens of articles on a people-trafficking operation inside Cambodia.

On March 14, the European Parliament issued a joint motion for a resolution calling Cambodian authorities to stop restricting civil liberties and media freedom ahead of elections.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said in a February statement the government decision appeared arbitrary.

"It was not preceded by a thorough and transparent process as required under Cambodia's own press law, and fails to meet the tests of legality, necessity and proportionality that international human rights law requires for any permissible restriction on freedom of expression."

Cambodia ranks 142 out of 180 countries, where 1 denotes the best media environment, on Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom index.