There were tears at Cambodia’s Voice of Democracy on Monday as journalist Khan Leakhena reacted to the sudden order to close the news website.
“I worked here not for money, but due to my love,” said Khan Leakhena, as others comforted the reporter.
Khan Leakhena is one of more than 30 journalists affected by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order to revoke the outlet’s license.
The order is in response to the media outlet reporting on Cambodia agreeing to send $100,000 in humanitarian aid to Turkey after last week’s devastating earthquake.
Voice of Democracy reported that the prime minister’s son, Hun Manet, had signed an aid order on behalf of Cambodia’s leader. The leader and his son later denied that was the case and demanded an apology.
Voice of Democracy sent two letters to Hun Sen expressing “regret” and requesting “forgiveness [for] any unintentional wrongdoing.”
The media outlet later ran a follow-up story to say that Hun Manet had denied signing the order.
But the move to revoke the license remained.
“[T]he news outlet seriously breached journalistic professionalism by affecting the fame and prestige of the government due to not running any correction in accordance with Press Law,” read a letter from Cambodia’s information ministry.
And in a Facebook post on Hun Sen’s official page early Monday, the prime minister said his order to close the outlet stood.
Cambodian internet service providers and mobile operators later blocked access to Voice of Democracy’s news websites in English and Khmer. And the Ministry of Information revoked the operating license.
Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, which oversees Voice of Democracy, said the action has shut down “credible and reliable” news for the public.
“We are hopeful that this is not the end of everything yet. We will try our best to work with relevant stakeholders. Hopefully, the solution will be realized soon,” he told media outlets that had gathered at the Voice of Democracy newsroom Monday.
Media analysts see Voice of Democracy as one of the few independent news outlets left in Cambodia.
Founded in 2003, the media outlet’s journalists have taken on big issues including deforestation, cyber scams, and a repressive political space in the lead-up to the 2022 local elections.
In the past year, it published dozens of articles on a people trafficking operation inside Cambodia.
Khan Leakhena, 31, had joined Voice of Democracy as an intern about 10 years ago and worked her way up in the newsroom. She was regularly featured on the outlet’s Facebook Live feed, which has 1.8 million viewers, to report on breaking news and protests.
“The shutdown was very rushed. I cried not because I lost the job, but I regretted my work that I have built for many years,” she told VOA Khmer.
Media rights organization and the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh voiced concern at Monday’s decision.
In a statement, the embassy said it was “deeply troubled by the abrupt decision.”
“For more than 20 years, VOD has provided objective, fact-based reporting on issues that serve the interests of the Cambodian people,” said the statement. “We urge Cambodian authorities to revisit this decision.”
Media groups noted that the order comes ahead of elections scheduled for July.
A joint statement from nearly 100 nongovernmental organizations said that the closure undermines the government’s claims to respect a free press and appears “to reflect a failure to uphold the 1995 Law on the Press.”
“The decision to revoke [Voice of Democracy’s] media license ahead of the July 2023 national elections represents a fresh wave of intimidation tactics against the country’s dwindling independent media that mirrors the 2017 closure of the Cambodia Daily and the 2018 sale of the Phnom Penh Post,” read the February 13 statement.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s arbitrary deadline signals a serious threat to all independent media and journalists in Cambodia. Cambodia has existing laws for how to deal with an alleged misquote or factual error in a media report,” it added.
Under the press law, people have the right to demand a retraction and reply from a publisher when they believe a statement is false.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that authorities had “never liked” Voice of Democracy’s reporting, including its coverage of a cyber scam syndicate involved in human trafficking.
“It’s likely [Voice of Democracy was] living on borrowed time for a while. But that’s no excuse for this outrageous and ridiculous order to shut them down based on the silliest of rationales about who signed a government document to give aid to Turkey,” Robertson said.
A spokesperson for Cambodia’s information ministry could not be reached for comment via phone late Monday, local time.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, Hun Sen said, “Foreign friends or civil society group need to understand both facts and legal aspects of this case before expressing opinion [critical of government].”
The rights group Licadho likened Monday’s order to the government pressure on journalists ahead of the 2018 national election.
Also, Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists noted the forthcoming election. In a statement, he said, “If Cambodia wants to maintain any pretense of democracy ahead of this year’s general elections, independent media must be allowed to report without fear of reprisal.”
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the nongovernmental Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said she hoped that Prime Minister Hun Sen would reconsider his decision.
“We need to acknowledge the values of [Voice of Democracy] which has contributed than using small things to shut [it] down,” she told the media on Monday.
Cambodia ranks 142 out of 180 countries, where 1 denotes the best media environment, on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom index.
This story originated in VOA’s Khmer Service.