International condemnation for the government’s continued clampdown on NGOs and independent media organisations continued to flow in over the weekend, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) calling it an “escalating campaign of politically-motivated harassment, intimidation, and legal action”.
In recent weeks, government agencies have initiated unilateral investigations into the tax compliance of rights NGOs and independent media outlets, including the English-language newspaper the Cambodia Daily – with the latter being asked to pay a purported $6.3 million in back taxes and penalties or cease operations.
The Daily met with tax officials on Friday, but General Manager Douglas Steele declined to comment on the meeting’s outcome.
Additionally, 15 local radio stations were asked to stop operations for allegedly not adhering to clauses in their contracts requiring them to inform the Ministry of Information about who they sell their airtime to. This has disproportionately affected independent radio broadcasters Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Voice of Democracy, and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
On Friday, Voice of Democracy released a statement saying that in addition to two stations that had stopped airing its programming last week, three others in Siem Reap, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces had followed suit.
The media closures were panned by the United Nations, European Union, HRW and Reporters Without Borders, with the latter classifying the actions taken against independent media outlets as “disturbing”.
Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concerns over the media closures, asking the government to respect the country’s international obligations to ensure freedom of association and expression.
The media crackdown coincided with the shuttering of the US-funded pro-democracy NGO National Democratic Institute (NDI), which was ordered to close down by the Foreign Ministry for not being properly registered. It’s foreign staff were given a week to leave the country.
HRW’s Phil Robertson said that the attack on the Daily showed a shrinking tolerance for critical views.
“The list of news, human rights and democracy-promoting organizations under attack by the Cambodian government seems to grow by the minute,” Robertson said in a statement. “Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule is being chiseled in stone.”
While the US State Department and US Embassy in Phnom Penh strongly condemned the action, it was followed by more criticism from US Representative Alan Lowenthal and veteran US Senator John McCain.
“By expelling the NDI staff, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is only demonstrating that he is afraid of open society and debate, and that he is willing to use authoritarian tactics to suppress them,” McCain said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry and ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan could not be reached for comment yesterday.