Senior officials have brushed off concerns raised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) over the annulment of the licence for online news outlet VOD, saying this would “improve” the professional ethics of the media in Cambodia.

The Ministry of Information revoked the licence of VOD, which was overseen by the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media (CCIM), on February 13 for “gross professional misconduct” after they failed to make corrections and issue a public apology for their “intentionally slanderous” report on the government’s earthquake relief to Turkiye.

The article by VOD, which published in both Khmer and English and also produced radio programmes, claimed to have quoted a government spokesman as saying that it was not wrong for Hun Manet – deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and future prime ministerial candidate for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – to sign off on the document on behalf of his father Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Spokesmen for both the Ministry of Justice and the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) explained that the revocation would only strengthen journalism in Cambodia, as it would deter others from abusing their profession.

Regarding perceived pressure from Western countries and the international community, justice ministry spokesman Chin Malin reiterated that the Kingdom’s sovereignty is sacrosanct.

“Regardless of diplomatic relations or our closeness to the international community, Cambodia is independent and will not be swayed by any foreign power. Our decisions are based on the national and international laws and are therefore legitimate,” he said.

On February 14, the OHCHR suggested that the government reverse its decision to close VOD. UN Human Rights chief Volker Turk outlined his concerns.

“[The] decision appeared arbitrary as it was not preceded by a thorough and transparent process as required under Cambodia’s own press law, and fails to meet the tests of legality, necessity or proportionality that international human rights law requires for any permissible restriction on freedom of expression,” he said.

“I call on the government to rescind this very troubling decision, to protect the civil and political rights of all, and to ensure an enabling environment for civil society, including independent media outlets,” he added.

CHRC spokesman Kata On dismissed the statement was baseless, saying that Turk “obviously lacked” detailed information about the case.

He explained that the revocation came about as a result of VOD broadcasting false information that “tarnished” the image of national institutions, as well as the dignity and honour of the prime minister and his family.

“The government’s actions do not violate the laws surrounding journalism, freedom of expression or democracy. According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, freedom of expression must be exercised in accordance with the principle of respect for the rights and dignity of others. VOD’s actions violated this convention,” he said.

“The closure of VOD does not adversely affect Cambodia’s media environment. There are more than 2,000 professional media outlets still serving the people of the Kingdom,” he added.

The spokesman considered the concerns that had been raised merely the latest example of a “seemingly endless tradition” of foreign powers trying to interfere in Cambodia’s internal affairs.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesman An Sok Khoeun had also rebuffed the concerns of some foreign embassies in Phnom Penh, reiterating that the licence annulment was neither politically motivated nor due to discrimination or bias.

“The outlet clearly violated journalistic principles. Demanding that the government reconsider its decision is very close to a violation of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” he said.

“Embassies should review the Convention before attempting to interfere in the internal affairs of their host country,” he added.

On February 14, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that he was prepared to offer employment within the state framework to former VOD staff members who wish to engage in public affairs.