The decision by Cambodian authorities to revoke licenses of three news outlets is “brazen intimidation” a media watchdog says.
The Ministry of Information’s decision impacts Bayong Times, Cambodia Today, and the online outlet Khmer Cover TV, or KCTV.
All three are accused of “disseminating information that violates the ethics of journalism and business contracts being upheld,” by the ministry, according to a March 15 letter from Sok Prasidh, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Information.
In an interview with VOA last week, Touch Yuthea of Cambodia Today, said he believes the decision is related to his news website reporting on irregularities in government contract bidding processes.
Cambodia Today in February reported on alleged irregularities in bidding for supplies for the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training.
Some officials at the ministry have said they suspect irregular practices, which may have resulted in a loss of millions of dollars in annual losses to the national budget.
Yuthea told VOA that a senior official in the Ministry of Information’s legislative department repeatedly asked him to drop the report. At first Yuthea did not agree. Later, not wanting friction with officials at the Ministry of Information, Yuthea says he decided to drop the report from his news website.
"I do not want to go too far with this issue.” Yuthea said. But, by March 15, “after I have made a compromise to end this trouble,” the ministry issued a letter “to terminate my license,” he said.
Meas Sophorn, spokesman for the Ministry of Information, could not be reached for comment.
Yuthea said he was disappointed by the decision.
“I want to play the role of a real news publisher. So, if there is any release [of] the information that affects, for example, the loss of national income, then it should be reconsidered because I protect the national money,” Yuthea said.
Asking media to drop “hot stories” on government issues “is harmful to freedom of expression and dissemination of true information," he added.
The editor said he doesn’t think the license issue represents the decision of the ministry as a whole.
VOA Khmer attempts to reach publishers for the Bayong Times and KCTV were not successful.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has said that the ministry told all three publications the licenses would be restored if they corrected or removed certain content.
None of the outlets received warning and were not able to appeal the decision, according to RSF.
The loss of licenses is a “gross violation of the freedom of publication as enshrined in article 41 of Cambodia’s constitution,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said in a statement.
“This is brazen intimidation, and we call on the government to immediately restore the publication licenses to these three outlets. Press freedom must not be the collateral victim of the actions of a few corrupt officials,” he added.
Nop Vy, executive director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association, said that pro-government media outlets often lose publishing licenses.
But, he added, the loss of licenses is “risky and even more dangerous for journalists who work in institutions that are not affiliated with the ministry or the government."
The ministry revoked licenses for seven media outlets in 2021, Vy says.
Cambodia has a poor press freedom record, ranking 144 out of 180 countries where 1 is freest in RSF's World Press Freedom Index.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government embarked on an offensive against independent media outlets in 2017 to maintain its grip on power, RSF said.
The media watchdog also cited the case of the defense minister last October allegedly ordering officials to “punish” provincial website operator Youn Chhiv for publishing an investigative report about illegal land seizures.
The journalist in that case was sentenced to a year in prison.