Cambodia's Ministry of Information has chalked up 2017 as a “huge success for the government”, saying supporters of jailed journalists were “killing” democracy and the closure of multiple media outlets was necessary.
During a speech in Phnom Penh on Friday morning presenting the ministry’s annual report, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith maintained that Cambodia was “on the right track” during a year of heightened scrutiny, which saw the jailing of opposition leader Kem Sokha and the forcible dissolution of his party.
Kanharith praised local media coverage of those events, saying: “Our pride is that we have our media contributing in strengthening democracy."
“As we are facing the high tension in events, we must acknowledge and check the gaps [in the ministry’s] surveillance and control, and also react on time to prevent the incidents from taking place,” he said.
Over the past year, Cambodia has seen the closure of multiple media outlets, including The Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia and an estimated 32 radio stations broadcasting American-funded, opposition or independent news. It has also jailed three journalists on espionage charges.
“The legal procedure that the government have filed to the court in order to punish the non-government organisations and some media who have violated the law is not considered to be an attempt to weaken the democratic space,” Kanharith said. "These measures have been to protect the sovereignty, peace, stability and national security… The support for any individual or unit that violates the law means the killing of the democratic process.”
His remarks come after a slew of recent media freedom reports noted that the media shutdowns were highly politicised and drastically curtailed Cambodia’s press freedom, which in turn impacted its democratic ranking.
The Information Ministry’s report contended Cambodia had “the most free press in Asean”, despite a recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit putting the Kingdom’s press freedom on par with Singapore and below Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia.
Mouen Chhean Narridh, director of Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said the shuttering of independent media outlets did impact press freedom and democracy as well. “We hope after the election the situation will become better,” he said.
He said while the government used legal grounds to justify the closures, he noted that not all media outlets were impacted and some independent media outlets still operated.
The Information Ministry report also urged Facebook users to use the social media platform with “dignity and respect for each others’ rights”. One woman, Sam Sokha, is serving a two-year prison term for throwing a shoe at a ruling party billboard in a video disseminated on social media, while last month a Kampong Cham man, San Rotha, was arrested on his wedding day for calling Hun Sen’s regime “authoritarian” on Facebook.
Huy Vannak, director of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia and an undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry, maintained the government line that independent media outlets closed of their own accord.
“We acknowledge we lost some critical voices, but there is room for many others,” he said. “If you look in the big spectrum, democracy is not just defined by elections and freedom of expression, but the growth and development of infrastructure.”
He denied that anyone had been arrested for calling Hun Sen “authoritarian” on Facebook, but stressed: “if you use the space for expression in the wrong way, then you have to account for your violation”.
Chhean Narridh likened Cambodia democracy, in the past, to a popular Khmer New Year dance, which involves three steps forward, two steps back.
“But in 2017, we seem to be dancing two steps forward and three back, so instead of moving forward, we are moving back,” he said. “Sooner or later, we will realise this is not the way we should dance.”