Freedom of the press has been on a “tragic decline” in Cambodia, with independent media outlets now in “ruins as a result of constant depredation by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime”, according to a new report published this week by international watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
The report was compiled from an October Reporters Without Borders’ investigation carried out by Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk, and was published on Tuesday.
The authors view last year’s commune elections as the turning point, whereby the ruling party reacted to a strong showing by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in June by targeting the press.
“Hun Sen sensed the danger and saw the need to rein in the media,” they wrote.
A few months later, the Cambodia Daily was shuttered after a widely criticised tax dispute, more than a dozen radio stations that broadcasted Radio Free Asia and Voice of America were shut down, and RFA pulled its in-country operations.
In the same month in which the CNRP was dissolved by the government, two former RFA journalists were arrested on charges of “espionage” and remain in prison without a trial.
Independent media is in “greater danger now in Cambodia than at any other time in its recent history, which still bears the deep scars of the Khmer Rouge era”, an RSF statement released alongside the report says. “The fight for the freedom to inform in Cambodia must therefore be pursued at all costs.”
Local journalist Sun Narin said the report reflects the reality of the current situation in Cambodia, with the targeting of journalists not only bringing fear within the industry, but rippling outwards among the public.
“People in general are also afraid of expressing their opinion,” he said.
“Even I, myself, I’m a little bit afraid of meeting with former CNRP officials because the [government] officials can accuse me anytime,” he said.
Ed Legaspi, executive director of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Press Alliance, said the outlook was “very bleak” for press freedom, especially for traditional media.
The report also documents the stranglehold on local media by a small group of businesspeople linked to the Cambodian People’s Party or who are government officials themselves, especially in broadcast media.
“The combined ratings of just four TV channels represent 80 [percent] of the country’s viewers and all of these channels are owned by people who are either members of the government or its advisers,” the report reads.
“Government members or advisers own eight of the ten leading TV channels.”
Among these powerful players is Hun Mana, head of Bayon Media Group, which owns the country’s biggest TV channel, Bayon TV. Meanwhile, Senate President and CPP Vice President Say Chhum owns newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea, as well as several TV and radio stations.
For San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, the potential impact of such a media landscape is immense. “The absence of independent media may contribute to [increased] corruption and poor public performance,” he said.