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Ministry of Information defends press crackdown to UN

Issues of the Cambodia Daily stacked at a newsstand in Phnom Penh before the newspaper closed shop in September following a $6 million tax dispute.
Issues of the Cambodia Daily stacked at a newsstand in Phnom Penh before the newspaper closed shop in September following a $6 million tax dispute. Pha Lina

Ministry of Information defends press crackdown to UN

Cambodia’s Ministry of Information has defended as legitimate its recent crackdown on independent press outlets, calling it a “warning to all media” in a missive to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations that appears to have been made public accidentally.

The document, dated November 23, addresses the recent closure of 21 radio stations broadcasting Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and opposition party programming, ostensibly over licensing issues, as well as the shuttering of the Cambodia Daily over a $6 million tax dispute.

Versions of the document were posted in the past two days to the homepage of the ministry’s website, as well as to the website of its press agency, Agence Kampuchea Press, only to be removed yesterday following an inquiry from a Post reporter.

Formatted as responses to questions posed by the UN, the ministry maintains the government did not use the law as a means to restrict or shut down independent media. It also denied that the radio stations had been closed without warning.

“In fact, freedom of the press and freedom of publication is really widely open up and has been assured by the Constitution and relevant laws, as we can see through [the] growing … number of media and the progress of the information and broadcasting sector in Cambodia,” the document reads.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Cambodia Daily staffers stand with placards bearing the slogan ‘Save the Daily’ at their Phnom Penh office. Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily

All of the outlets targeted were among the few that are openly critical of the government, and the timing of the closures raised eyebrows as well, coming in the midst of a crackdown on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

The party was dissolved this month over allegations it was fomenting a foreign-backed “revolution”, and leaked government documents show officials sought to link several of the outlets named to the purported plot.

Meanwhile, two former RFA reporters are currently facing charges of “espionage” for allegedly filing reports to their former employer, which they have denied.

In its explanation, the ministry said that some of the stations whose licences were revoked had violated their contracts with the ministry and did not seek authorisation to rent their airtime. According to the ministry, despite many reminders, the licence owners never took action.

It further claims that its order that local stations stop renting airtime to RFA and VOA was because the media outlets were not registered with the ministry. RFA has said it made efforts to register, but that the ministry never responded to its request.

VOA could not be reached yesterday. The ministry characterised the closures as “a warning to all media” and said “there is no condition that the revoked licences can be renewed or reissued”.

In going after the Daily, the ministry wrote, the government was simply implementing the tax law, although observers and newspaper owner Deborah Krisher-Steele have challenged the astronomical $6.3 million bill for back taxes and fees as exorbitant.

Mahmoud Garga, spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, said the document appeared to be “in response to a communication sent by Special Rapporteurs of the [UN] Human Rights Council”.

“Communications sent and State replies received usually remain confidential until they are published in Communications Reports submitted to each regular session of the Human Rights Council, in this case in March 2018,” he said via email.

Ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng declined to comment, and referred questions to Phos Sovann, director-general of the ministry’s Department of Information and Broadcasting, who was unreachable.

Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 6:58am

This story has been updated with the correct number of radio stations recently closed by the government, and to state that they were shut down for not registering with the Ministry of Information.

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