In another blow to freedom of expression and access to information in Cambodia, strongman leader Hun Sen has ordered the shutdown of Voice of Democracy (VOD), one of the country’s last independent local news organisations. The closure of VOD is the latest in a long-running clampdown on press freedom and has significant implications on digital rights and upholding democratic processes, especially with the general elections coming up in July 2023.
In a statement on Facebook, the Cambodian prime minister said VOD would no longer have a licence to publish or broadcast from 10 am local time on February 13, 2023.
The move comes after VOD, known for its critical reporting and investigative journalism, published a story on the prime minister’s son signing off on an agreement to send earthquake aid to Turkey. According to Reuters, the report alluded to Lieutenant General Hun Manet appearing to have overstepped his position. Hun Manet is widely expected to succeed his father. In comments regarding the VOD story, Hun Sen said that “commentators tried to attack me and my son Hun Manet”, and that the report had hurt the “dignity and reputation” of the Cambodian government. VOD had earlier sent a letter saying it was “regretful for confusions” regarding the article but maintained that the report had quoted a government spokesman.
VOD is run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), which was established in 2007 to promote independent media, freedom of expression, access to information, and internet freedom. Aside from its radio and online news reporting, CCIM is involved in advocacy work, media training, and network building with other journalist and media groups.
The closure of VOD points to deteriorating freedom of expression in the country: Cambodia currently ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in the 2022 Press Freedom Index, and is rated ‘partly free’ in the 2022 Freedom on the Net report. News and content deemed a threat to the ruling government are periodically blocked, and there has been an increase in self-censorship online among journalists, activists, and civil society groups.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, CCIM’s media director Ith Sothoeuth said he is hopeful that there was a possibility to resolve the situation. “We hope this is not the end of everything yet, we will try our best to work with all relevant stakeholders, hopefully, the solution can be realised soon,” he said.
How does the shutdown of VOD impact digital rights?
- Chilling effect on freedom of expression: When authorities shut down a news outlet over their critical reporting, they not only silence the views and perspectives advanced by that news outlet – the move also sends a message to other journalists that they too could face the same fate. In recent years, several independent news organisations have shut down, including the Cambodia Daily in 2017 and over 30 independent radio stations. To avoid being targeted by government authorities, journalists may be more cautious or self-censor their reporting on public interest issues.
- Restricting access to information: Going after independent media coverage restricts people’s ability to access critical information and limits the diversity of perspectives available to the public, making it easier for those in power to suppress dissent and control the narrative to advance their interests. People may have limited access to information on human rights abuses, corruption, health concerns, economic news, and other important social and political topics. The shutdown of VOD is especially concerning as it comes several months before the elections – a time when credible and independent sources of news and information are most needed.
- A form of digital authoritarianism that undermines democratic processes: In a democracy, independent media plays a critical role in check and balance mechanisms, holding government officials and institutions accountable. The closure of a news outlet threatens democracy by limiting the information available to the public, preventing them from making informed decisions to participate in democratic processes. Muzzling the press through shutdown orders is also a form of digital authoritarianism – a growing trend throughout the Asia-Pacific – where those in power control the narratives and dissenting voices are silenced.
1. The OPCC, along with other media and civil society groups, have issued a statement on the government’s revocation of @VODKhmer & @VOD_English‘s media license. This is a dark and disturbing day for #Cambodia and for press freedoms. https://t.co/ZHebdGo8eB
— opccambodia (@opccambodia) February 13, 2023
Who has spoken up?
Journalists, human rights organisations, and other activists have expressed alarm and concern over the move and called for the reversal of the shutdown order:
- EngageMedia is among a growing group of civil society and media groups condemning the shutdown order. In a joint statement endorsed by 97 organisations, the groups stressed the indispensable role of independent media in democracy and called on the Cambodian government to resolve the issue.
- Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in a tweet that VoD plays a significant role in promoting access to information in Cambodia.
- Amnesty International said the shutdown puts Cambodian people’s access to information at risk and is an attempt to wipe out dissent and critical voices. “Arbitrarily shutting down an outspoken media organization will have an immediate chilling effect on anyone who still dares to ask questions about the actions of the Cambodian government”, Hana Young, Amnesty International Deputy Regional Director, said.
- The Asia Democracy Network said the shutdown is part of a “continuous assault on fundamental freedoms” in Cambodia and called on the international community to be more unified and resolute in addressing the situation.
- In urging the Cambodian government to uphold press freedom, Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said of the shutdown order: “This type of government harassment of the free press is all too familiar and must stop now”.
- Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said VOD has “served as an important mainstay of independent investigative reporting and objective criticism for years” and that its closure is a “devastating blow to media freedom”.
What can we do about it?
Shutting down independent media has significant implications for people’s exercise of freedom of expression, access to information, and safeguarding democratic processes. Raising awareness and supporting calls to reverse the move is important:
- Stay informed about the latest news and updates on the VOD shutdown, and share information about its impact on human and digital rights.
- Join online campaigns and use social media platforms to spread the word. Follow #SaveVoD to amplify public awareness.
- Support initiatives by journalists in and outside Cambodia protesting the shutdown, such as by signing letters and petitions calling for the protection of freedom of expression and access to information.
- Support independent news outlets continuing to provide critical coverage amid government pressure.
This post has been updated to include more statements from organisations condemning the shutdown order.