On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, an English news website was launched Friday to help revive the stifled independent media landscape in Cambodia.
"[We] established [it] because we saw the lack of independent media platforms in Cambodia that provide very independent information to the people living outside Cambodia, especially the international community," said Nop Vy, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, or CCIM.
Until recently, Voice of Democracy's news website was written in the Cambodian language, Khmer. VOD, which published a few articles recently, hopes to fill in the gap left behind by independent news outlets that were forced to close or were sold over the past few years, Nop Vy added.
Independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily was forced to shut down in September 2017 when faced with a tax bill of $6.3 million. Additionally, Radio Free Asia closed its doors in Phnom Penh, citing pressure from the government, 30 radio stations were taken off air, and the last English independent daily newspaper, The Phnom Penh Post, was sold in May of last year.
With a new team of five to seven people, including reporters and editors, Nop Vy said he hoped the website could play "the role as the watchdog in order to monitor the actions of the government" that had previously been performed by other outlets.
This, he said, would contribute to good governance and democracy in the country.
Nop Vy said he aimed to generate income for the Khmer website and activities of CCIM in general, to which VOD belongs.Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, welcomed the creation of the English website.
"Cambodia's press freedom situation has deteriorated significantly in recent years due to government harassment and threats," he said in an email. "[Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen's government clearly sees free media as a threat to his consolidation of an unchallenged one-party state."
Government official Huy Vannak, who simultaneously serves as undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry and head of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, denied the accusation. He said press freedom was "open and wide" and that journalists who complained about a lack thereof misunderstood the concept of freedom of expression.
"I think they want to use freedom for hate speech; they want to use freedom for incitement," he said. Journalists who said they felt they could not report freely often wrote "immoral" articles, he said, by harming other people's or government officials' dignity — such as calling Cambodia's government the "Hun Sen regime."
"If they have good intentions, and if they practice professionalism, they can do whatever [they want to do]," he said. "But the point is people misunderstand how to exercise their freedom."
'Huge gap' filled
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, echoed CPJ's assessment. He said that while the new program "really fills a huge gap in reporting," this was likely not a permanent solution. "Sadly, the big question is not if — but rather when — the Cambodian government decides to go after VOD and its reporters," Robertson told VOA by email.
"Freedom of the press is still an endangered species in Hun Sen's Cambodia. Diplomats should be telling the Cambodian government to respect media freedom and end the persecution of RFA, VOD, and other independent media," Robertson added.
The CCIM's Nop Vy said his organization attempted to prevent this from happening by building a "mutual understanding between the government and the independent journalists."