“The situation is in free fall”, said 39-year-old motodop and avid Radio Free Asia listener Khem Sophorn yesterday, lamenting the government’s move to shutter radio stations broadcasting critical news programmes and to close the Cambodia Daily newspaper over unpaid tax.
“They are abusing our right to access information. If the only news outlets left are pro-government, there is no balance.”
In the past week, the Ministry of Information has ordered the closure of at least 15 radio stations carrying programming from Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of Democracy (VOD), whose Director Pa Nguon Teang yesterday described the situation as a “clear message” that independent media were being targeted. The Cambodia Daily, too, faces closure after being slapped with a $6.3 million tax bill by the Tax Department, with the critical English-language newspaper given until Monday to pay or be shut down.
Both the ministry and the Tax Department have denied a political motive.
In a letter signed by its Director General Kong Vibol yesterday, the Tax Department reiterated its threat, accused the Daily of charging value added tax but “putting it in their pocket” and described their representative as having “no proof” and “nothing to say” at a meeting with the department on Friday.
A response by Daily Deputy Publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele, explained the newspaper had not collected VAT prior to its registration as a business in April, and had paid all VAT and income tax since.
“If they want proof of this, they can look at their own receipts. The Ministry of Finance placed ads with us for decades so they knew and had to have approved,” she said.
Meanwhile, spokesman for the Information Ministry Ouk Kimseng yesterday repeated that radio station closures were due to “contract violations”.
Despite their purported motives, the government has been pilloried by critics, with investigative NGO Global Witness joining the chorus.
“The ruling party is either closing down organisations that it considers a threat to its re-election, or slapping them with crippling tax bills that may choke them out of existence,” said Global Witness campaigner Emma Burnett. “This latest wave of threats . . . are clearly intended to scare the prime ministers’ [sic] critics into silence.”
Listeners and readers from around the country also remain unconvinced by the government narrative.
“I think the prime minister does not want people listening to the independent radio,” said 43-year-old tuk-tuk driver Meach Vannak outside Boeung Keng Kang market. “He does not want people to know deeply about what he is doing.”
Sophorn, the motodop, said he was concerned about an atmosphere of intimidation pervading the marketplace, making people think twice before delivering critical commentary about politics.
But, perhaps worse, he said he worried about the implications of the decision to shut provincial radio stations broadcasting RFA, VOA and VOD. “At least in Phnom Penh you can still access quite a lot of information, but this will have a big impact for people in the rural areas. In the provinces, they don’t have a lot of access and they will be more and more ignorant.”
Chhul Sremom, a garment worker from Kampong Speu province, said yesterday that VOD, RFA and VOA radio broadcasts had gone dark in Samrong Tong district, but social media provided continued access to the services.
“For younger people like me or people in urban areas, they are still able to access Facebook to listen to radio programmes, which is easier compared to the situation for old people and people in rural areas,” she said, noting TV news was “not trusted”.
Phorn Vanna, 36, a truck driver from Kampong Chhnang, said she was no longer able to listen to RFA, which she said was her daily source of news about the world at large. “The government right now prevents us from accessing independent news. This contravenes the constitution; people have a right to express themselves and get information freely.”
Additional reporting by Mech Dara