Parliamentarians from Southeast Asia condemned “in the strongest terms” the shutting down of the last independent media outlet operating in Cambodia, the Voice of Democracy (VOD).
“Shutting down an independent media outlet due to a single perceived ‘mistake’ is a blatant violation of freedom of the press,” said Mercy Barends, chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
The Indonesian parleamentarian noted in a statement on Tuesday, February 14, that “cracking down on a media outlet like VOD … not only serves to silence it, but also anyone else who might consider writing anything critical of the government.”
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the shutdown of VOD, one of the country’s few remaining local independent media outlets, on Sunday after taking issue with a news report about his son.
VOD publishes and broadcasts in Khmer and English, and is frequently critical of Hun Sen and his government.
“This is unacceptable in any circumstance, even more so when elections are set to be held in a few months’ time,” said Barends.
“How can there be free and fair elections under such a climate of fear and self-censorship?” she added.
According to media reports, VOD published a story stating that Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, had signed on behalf of his father an agreement to provide earthquake aid to Turkey, quoting a statement from government spokesperson Phay Siphan.
Hun Sen alleges that the story was false and hurt the “dignity and reputation” of the Cambodian government, as Hun Manet, who is deputy commander of the country’s military, does not have the authority to approve foreign aid.
VOD has apologized for the mistake, but the prime minister ordered the Ministry of Information to cancel VOD’s license.
The shutdown of VOD is the latest in a long series of steps that the Cambodian government has taken in recent years to suppress criticism against the government.
In 2017 and 2018, two independent newspapers, The Cambodian Daily and The Phnom Penh Post, were closed and bought out, respectively, after being hit by exorbitant tax bills.
The government has also used articles in the criminal code, as well as COVID-19 regulations, to prosecute journalists and social media users that question or criticize government policies.
“Hun Sen’s flagrant flouting of democratic principles and civil rights cannot continue to be left unanswered. ASEAN, and the global community in general, must denounce these authoritarian tactics and demand that the Cambodian government uphold freedom of the press and freedom of expression in order to create a climate conducive to a free and fair election,” Barends said.
“Until the government allows independent journalism to flourish in the country, releases all political prisoners, and allows opposition parties to express their political views without fear of reprisals, any elections held in Cambodia will be just a farce,” she said.