By Aug. 28, the government had shut down 19 radio stations operated by eight broadcasters across the country. Officials cited contract violations for “overselling” program slots to broadcasters Voice of Democracy, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Now the U.S.-funded RFA and VOA can no longer be heard in most rural areas, where many relied on their programming for unbiased news, while VOD has been bumped off the air entirely. Meanwhile, the Cambodia Daily, one of two independent English-language newspapers publishing in Cambodia since the early 1990s, faces snap closure on Sept. 4 if it fails to pay a disputed $6.3 million tax bill. A statement issued by the paper, which says it is running at a loss, calls the demand an “assault on press freedom thinly disguised as a tax dispute.”
Hun Sen, a former commander in the Khmer Rouge army, defected from Pol Pot’s brutal regime two years before it fell in a Vietnamese-led invasion in 1979. Since becoming prime minister in 1985, he has ruthlessly fought off challenges to his supremacy by just about any means, including a brief but bloody coup in 1997 that ousted his co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
But even as most Cambodians relied on Khmer-language television and newspapers — largely concentrated in the hands of a few elites who are closely aligned with the government — Hun Sen could hold up the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post as evidence of a free press. (In fact, Reporters Without Borders has consistently ranked Cambodia near the bottom of its annual press freedom index.)
A surge in threats to the media over the past year can be linked to a changing political climate. In 2013, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) faced a newly energized opposition in the form of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which won 55 seats to the CPP’s 68 in an election marred by voting irregularities. In local elections in June, the opposition received more than 40 percent of the votes in a contest that had long previously been overwhelmingly dominated by the CPP. The CNRP achieved that result at a moment when its former president, Sam Rainsy, was in exile and many of its activists in prison.
If the opposition can maintain its momentum until 2018, Hun Sen’s political legacy hangs in the balance. Cambodians now get much of their news via social media, which in the past has been used effectively by the opposition to mobilize support. Spooked, the authorities began ramping up their attacks on independent media outlets earlier this year as well as pressuring individual reporters.
These attacks on the press run parallel to a deepening crackdown on civil society groups, beginning with the passage of legislation in mid-2015 that critics say was designed to silence critical nonprofits, and culminating in the ordered expulsion of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute and its staff last week. Staff at several other organizations are reportedly being harassed and intimidated at “unprecedented” levels. Some of the most prominent among them are also facing tax investigations that appear to be politically motivated.
Meanwhile, a number of individual Cambodians have found themselves under official pressure for expressing dissatisfaction with the ruling party, including a woman who was arrested for throwing a shoe at a billboard depicting Hun Sen. In two separate cases, leaders of minor political parties have been jailed. There are signs that the opposition CNRP could be targeted next.
While the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have all censured Cambodia for its attacks on the press and civil society, their leverage appears to be decreasing. In recent years, Cambodian officials have repeatedly accused the United States and its “foreign agents” of attempting to stir up an Arab Spring-style revolt to topple the government. The government denies that its actions are either politically motivated or unwarranted.
President Trump’s inward-looking agenda, which has manifested in a near-total disengagement with Southeast Asia, has emboldened a Cambodian prime minister intent on holding onto power at any cost (as have Trump’s attacks on the U.S. media, which Cambodian officials have used to justify threats to foreign press in the country). At the same time, Hun Sen has been strengthening ties with China, which offers aid and investments with no strings attached — unlike Western countries, whose assistance is almost always conditional.
Press freedom in Cambodia faces its greatest challenge since U.N. peacekeepers withdrew from the country in 1993. That journalists and activists are encountering such intense pressure with almost a year to go until the elections augurs poorly for the future of democracy in Cambodia.