Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned that The Cambodia Daily, an independent English-language newspaper known for criticizing Cambodia’s government, is facing imminent closure, while many independent radio stations have already been closed. This clampdown on independent media outlets has come as Cambodia prepares to hold elections next year.
The Cambodia Daily was the first to be targeted. The finance ministry suddenly gave it until 4 September to pay 6.3 million dollars (about 5.3 million euros) in back taxes. If it fails to pay, it will just have “pack up and go,” according to no less a person than Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The newspaper learned of the ultimatum shortly after a cabinet meeting at the start of August at which the prime minister announced that he planned to investigate the taxes of Cambodia’s media and NGOs. The newspaper’s editor, Jodie DeJonge, regards it as arbitrary and politically motivated, pointing out that no tax audit had been carried out.
“The government has been increasingly critical of The Cambodia Dailyand our reporters over the past few months.” she told RSF. “Now, we are facing a huge tax bill, which we dispute. But this is not a tax issue, it is a free press issue.”
The Cambodia Daily has been one of the relatively few independent media outlets to cover corruption, deforestation and other stories that are embarrasing for the government. The fact that the finance ministry letter containing the ultimatum was leaked to the pro-government Fresh News website was seen as threat to other outlets that dare to cover the country’s problems.
“Demanding vast sums of money from a media outlet without first conducting an audit and then threatening it with closure for non-payment in an extremely short space of time constitutes an indirect form of censorship,” RSF said.
“These threats are all the more disturbing because they are occurring one year before the next elections. We fear a pre-emptive clampdown designed to silence media that are likely to let the opposition’s voice be heard.”
No voice for the opposition
The mounting fears about the threat to independent media outlets has been confirmed by the government-ordered closure of several radio stations in the past two days.
Without any warning, the information ministry issued orders on 23 August to two independent Cambodian stations, Women’s Media Centre of Cambodia (WMC) and Mohanokor, to terminate their operations on the grounds that they had violated the terms of their licences.
Three other radio stations, Kampong Cham, Angkor Ratha and Samleng Cheayden, were closed yesterday. They retransmitted the programmes of Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), international broadcasters that promote democracy and human rights. RFA and VOA were themselves the targets of Cambodian government intimidation in 2012.
Including the local offshoots of each of these mother radio stations, at least ten stations have been shut down in the space of a few days.
The management of Mohanokor disputes the information ministry claim that it broadcast “outside programs without requesting authorization” while the management of WMC, which had been told to stop retransmitting VOA and RFA programmes, said such programes “generally did not pose any problems” in the past.
RSF points out that RFA’s programmes are still accessible on shortwave, on its English-language Facebook page, and in Khmer. The same applies to VOA’s programmes.
Cambodia is ranked 132nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
(c) 2017 Reports without Borders