PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — One of Cambodia’s last free media outlets, Voice of Democracy radio, ceased operations on Monday after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered its closure for allegedly slandering his son in a story.
The story — which was also published on the website of VoD, as the station is better known — said that Hun Sen’s son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, had signed a donation on his father’s behalf of $100,000 for Turkey earthquake relief.
Hun Sen said the article misinterpreted the facts and that only the prime minister has the authority to make decisions on foreign aid. VoD acknowledged it had made a mistake, but that did not satisfy Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for 38 years, during which he has cracked down on critics and independent media.
His son heads the army and has been nominated by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to succeed him when he steps down. With most opponents silenced, including the only credible opposition party, Hun Sen is expected to lead his party to another victory in a general election scheduled for July.
VoD has reported extensively on sensitive issues such as land grabbing and criminal gangs operating with near impunity to carry out internet scams with people, especially foreigners, tricked into working under conditions of near slavery.
A previous media clampdown has already forced several outlets out of business on disputed grounds that they had not properly paid their taxes.
The Information Ministry said Monday that VoD’s license was being revoked “because it has seriously violated the ethics of professional journalism and did not make a correction according to the press law, affecting the honor and prestige of the government.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the Cambodian government “has never liked VoD’s reporting, and given Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authoritarian attitude towards independent media, it’s likely VoD have been living on borrowed time for a while.”
“But that’s no excuse for this outrageous and ridiculous order to shut them down based on the silliest of rationales about who signed a government document to give aid to Turkey. This flimsy and absurd decision barely masks the government’s real intent to further suppress media freedom.”
He said that historically, Hun Sen and his party usually crack down hard on any independent voices ahead of a national election.
“Going after VoD is a good indication that scheduled July 23 poll will be neither free nor fair,” Robertson said.
Hun Sen ordered VoD to cease operating at 10 a.m. Monday, and the station’s personnel were at their desks when representatives from Phnom Penh City Hall and the Information Ministry arrived to serve the order. The road outside was closed in an apparent effort to quash any street protests.
However, there were no confrontations because VoD said it would honor the license revocation. Hun Sen had advised the authorities to inform the station when the deadline arrived and not take any further action.
After the authorities left, other reporters visited the VoD office to hear staff express their disappointment.
“I could not imagine that the prime minister would shut down the voice of the people like this,” said a tearful reporter, Khan Leakhena. “VoD only went directly to report on people who had land disputes, but then it was manipulated to look as if we are from the opposition.”
A VoD spokesperson, Sothoeuth Ith, said after receiving the closure order, “So for now, we will stay silent, we will not continue our broadcast.”
“Maybe hopefully this is not the end of everything,” he said. In what appeared to refer to the possibility that Hun Sen might eventually restore VoD’s license, he added, “We will try our best to work with all relevant stakeholders and hopefully a solution can be realized.”
The United States Embassy in Cambodia said it was “deeply troubled by the abrupt decision” to revoke VoD’s media license.
“We urge Cambodian authorities to revisit this decision,” the embassy said in a statement. It said the station “has provided objective, fact-based reporting on issues that serve the interests of the Cambodian people” for more than 20 years.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price, speaking Monday to reporters in Washington, said the move was “particularly troubling given the chilling impact it will have on freedom of expression and on access to information ahead of the national elections in July.”
AP diplomatic writer Matt Lee contributed from Washington, D.C.