Cambodia has dropped 10 places in the World Press Freedom Index and risks mimicking China’s silencing of criticism, according to new data from international organisation Reporters Without Borders.
The index, released on Wednesday, shows Cambodia is now ranked 142 out of 180 countries, down from a ranking of 132 last year.
Cambodia “seems dangerously inclined to take the same path as China after closing dozens of independent media outlets and plunging ten places, one of the biggest falls in the region”, the press freedom group said.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime launched a ruthless offensive against media freedom in 2017 . . . His suppression of independent voices, his increased dominance of the mass media and his meticulous control of social media are a disturbing echo of the methods used in China, which has invested millions of euros in Cambodia’s pro-government media,” they wrote.
More than 30 independent radio frequencies were shuttered last year and a $6.3 million government tax bill – largely believed to be politically motivated – forced the English-language Cambodia Daily to shut down in September. Radio Free Asia and Voice of America also had their in-country operations sharply curtailed in a widespread media crackdown in the Kingdom, and three journalists, two from RFA, have been jailed on dubious national security charges.
This, combined with the 2016 murder of Kem Ley – a prominent analyst and frequent media commentator – “has resulted in a climate of terror that has drastically curtailed press freedom”, Reporters Without Borders said.
RFA President Libby Liu said the report was “absolutely correct” in noting the dramatic decline in the Kingdom's press freedom.
“The past year up to now has been like no other for RFA,” Liu said in a statement. “Authoritarian strongmen in Asia – who rule countries to which RFA broadcasts – have shown little, if any, restraint in targeting RFA journalists and sources, as well as their families and loved ones.”
Once considered a leader in Southeast Asia for independent press, Cambodia now ranks below Thailand and Myanmar, but still scrapes in above the highly state-controlled media landscapes of Laos, Vietnam and Singapore. Globally, Cambodia ranked below Honduras and just above Venezuela and South Sudan – countries marred by unrest.
Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media, said while he was unaware of the methodology used, from his perspective, freedom of the press had deteriorated.
“Press freedom in Cambodia is … worse and worse since the last year, and it will be worse as the Cambodian government doesn’t care about freedoms, rights, and laws,” he said in a message, adding the government’s hostile attitude put Cambodia’s free press in “great danger and uncertainty”.
Moeun Chhean Narridh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said he was disappointed by last year’s closure of independent outlets.
“On the side of the media, we feel very sad and frustrated that this happened, and we hope that the trend will be reversed too, particularly after the election,” he said.
“But to be fair to the government, if they restricted press freedom as a whole, they would have shut other media outlets like The Phnom Penh Post and Radio France International.”
He said Cambodia had not yet sunk to restrictive levels elsewhere and baulked at the suggestion that Cambodia was imitating China.
“China does not have any private media, so we cannot say Cambodia is copying the Chinese model of media and press freedom,” he said.
Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia Director and Interior Ministry official Huy Vannak was unconcerned about the rankings.
“I don’t care,” he said. “Some problems exist, [there are] obstacles for the media in Cambodia . . . We need to acknowledge that, but I don’t know if it’s better or worse. I don’t want to compare my country to other countries.”
When asked about China’s influence, he chuckled.
“Why do white people have a negative view of China? I disagree with the perception of the West on China and then on Cambodia. If you respect freedom, you need to respect freedom of choice.”
The past few years have seen fluctuations in the Kingdom’s press freedom ranking, which went from 139 in 2015 up to 128 in 2016, only to fall back down to 132 last year.