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Voice of Democracy staff inside their office following the revocation of their operating license by Prime Minister Hun Sen on February 13, 2023. © 2023 LICADHO

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government effectively eliminated all vestiges of media freedom in Cambodia by shutting down one of the last remaining independent domestic news outlets, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 12, 2023, Prime Minister Hun Sen unexpectedly announced the revocation of the operating license of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, the parent organization of Voice of Democracy (VOD).

Voice of Democracy has served as an important mainstay of independent investigative reporting and objective criticism for years, even as the Cambodian government’s tolerance for critical views has markedly declined,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hun Sen’s closure of Voice of Democracy is a devastating blow to media freedom in the country and will have an impact across Cambodian society.”

The order to close VOD was issued on Hun Sen’s Facebook account. The prime minister objected to a February 9 VOD article alleging that Hun Sen’s eldest son and heir apparent, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, had been the official, acting in place of his father, who approved a financial aid package for Turkey following its destructive earthquake.

Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party have previously been criticized for sidestepping fundamental democratic principles in their announced support in 2021 for Hun Manet to succeed his father as prime minister. Constitutional amendments adopted in July 2022 make it easier for Hun Manet to be elevated to the prime minister post.

On February 12, 2023, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media sent a letter to Hun Sen, expressing “regret” and updating the article by noting that Hun Manet asserted he did not sign on behalf of the prime minister. This was despite an admission by a government spokesperson, Phay Siphan, in the same article that “Hun Manet…is not wrong…to play this role.”

Hun Sen rejected the letter in a Facebook post, stating that he could “not accept the term ‘regretful’ … instead of an apology.” On that basis he ordered the Information Ministry to “cancel the license for VOD from now on and that it stops broadcasting.”

The Cambodian government effectively controls all national TV and radio stations broadcasting in Khmer as well as national Khmer-language newspapers.

VOD was created in 2003 as a local independent media outlet to produce radio programs and disseminate information to the public. Publishing in both Khmer and English, it has taken on issues of corruption and government wrongdoing, human rights violations, targeted attacks on organized labor, land seizures, micro-finance scandals, and environmental destruction. Much of its reporting has been unpopular with senior government officials and their allies. VOD’s coverage of human trafficking of foreigners into cyber-scam operations controlled by influential Chinese syndicates with backing by senior ruling party officials have been particularly unpopular with the Cambodian government.

VOD’s role as an independent media outlet in the country became increasingly important after the government in 2017 closed The Cambodia Daily and forced the sale of the Phnom Penh Post to buyers friendly to the government. The government also shut down FM radio stations that had been broadcasting programs from Radio Free Asia. The attack on media freedom contributed to the unfairness of the fundamentally flawed national election in 2018. Cambodia’s next general election is planned for July 23, 2023.

"The shuttering of Voice of Democracy may spell the end for the media environment necessary for credible elections,” Robertson said. “The Cambodian people are the ultimate losers, because they have lost one of the last remaining sources of independent news on issues affecting their lives, livelihoods, and human rights.”

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