PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Erin Handley came to Cambodia just over two years ago to work at The Phnom Penh Post. Originally from Australia, Handley had been in Cambodia briefly only once, but she said that was enough to sustain her interest.
Cambodia was unique in the region. Unlike neighboring countries under authoritarian rule with propaganda outlets, Cambodia’s press was free. Handley dove in, allowing her to do vital reporting on human trafficking, politics, illegal logging and other issues that at times were critical of a government known for its open corruption.
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Then, in late 2017, opposition party leader Kem Sokha was arbitrarily jailed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Within 48 hours, the government shut down The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper founded in 1993.
“That’s when we started to see the writing on the wall,” Handley said. “Even though The Cambodia Daily was technically a competitor, we would pick it up and see if they scooped us on something or what stories they put out.”
On July 29, Cambodian voters head to their local polling places to cast votes for prime minister. There are a dizzying number of parties to choose from; one report counted 20 so far — all part of a façade of a free and fair election.
Hun Sen, in power for more than 30 years, has systematically dismantled the free press, restricted or outlawed freedom of expression — sometimes by force — in what has been described as the death-knell for democracy in Cambodia. He is expected to win re-election by a landslide.
Formed in the first years after internal and external conflict and the devastation of the Khmer Rouge, The Cambodia Daily was dedicated to reporting “without fear or favor.”
But in late 2017, the Daily received an exorbitant and — what some call punitive — tax bill from the government. The Daily had no choice but to close. Hun Sen had forced the Daily out of business. Its last headline read: “Descent into Outright Dictatorship.”
Within a year, Handley’s paper, The Phnom Phen Post, was bought by a Malaysian businessman with deep and loyal ties to Hun Sen and his government. The executive editor was fired and an exodus of international staff journalists followed.
The Phnom Penh Post was effectively silenced.
“The media climate in Cambodia, which used to be among the freest in Southeast Asia, has changed dramatically since August 2017,” said Astrid Noren-Nilsson, associate senior lecturer at the Center for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University in Sweden.
Hun Sen’s targeting the free press — radio, print and online — is concerning to Noren-Nilsson.
“The situation for journalists is now very volatile,” she said.
The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily were the two news outlets that played the role journalism is supposed to play: critical truth teller. Both were widely read by Cambodians, which meant they were a threat to Hun Sen’s government control. International outlets or wire services mean little.
But exposing governmental wrongdoing, or even being critical of the Hun Sen government, became increasingly dangerous in the run-up to the election.
Cambodia dropped 10 places, to 142 out of 180 countries, in the annual World Press Freedom Index.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime launched a ruthless offensive against media freedom in 2017,” the Index report said. “His suppression of independent voices, his increased dominance of the mass media and his meticulous control of social media are a disturbing echo of the methods used in China.”
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A 2018 report from Human Rights Watch outlined Hun Sen’s abuses: “In his time of power, hundreds of opposition figures, journalists, trade union leaders and others have been killed in politically motivated attacks. Although in many cases those responsible for the killings are known, in not one case has there been a credible investigation and prosecution, let alone conviction.”
More than 30 radio stations have been shut down, and international non-governmental organizations designed to promote democracy and press freedom have been ejected — in some cases without notice — by the government. At least three journalists have been jailed.
The Cambodian government has enacted a series of laws and policies directed at restricting the press and freedom of expression.
The National Election Committee of Cambodia recently released guidelines for reporters covering the elections. Journalists shouldn’t have “their own ideas to make conclusions” while reporting on the election so as not to sow “confusion and loss of confidence” of the vote, the guidelines said.
Confusion and loss of confidence aren’t defined in the guidelines, leaving room for broad interpretation by reporters who have to guess what they can print without being fined or arrested.
Similarly, the intentionally vague lèse-majesté law (literally translates to “insulting a monarch”) was enacted earlier this year. It effectively outlaws any speech that either “directly [or] indirectly affects the interest of Cambodia.”
Kheang Navy, a 50-year-old teacher, was the first person to be arrested under the new law in May. He allegedly wrote a Facebook post that said the government and the monarch conspired to dismantle the main opposition party.
The law also allows Hun Sen’s government to levy charges against media outlets and institutions.
On May 7, Handley released a statement on behalf of her fellow reporters at The Phnom Penh Post. Just days before, a man with deep connections to high-ranking government officials in Cambodia and Malaysia had bought the paper, which then ran a story that outlined his government connections.
Representatives of the new owners showed up at the Post offices and ordered the article taken down from the website — published in English and Khmer — and fired the editor in chief. The message was clear: No article perceived by the owner to be critical of the Cambodian government would be tolerated.
“Our article,” reads the statement signed by Handley and more than a dozen other current and former reporters, “was written in an attempt to maintain the transparency and integrity of our paper as we have done for more than 25 years.”
Handley said she doesn’t believe she’s at risk of arrest as a journalist and she is staying on to report through the elections. But the risk of arrest is real for many.
That fear prompted other Cambodian and Phnom Penh-based reporters to speak only on background and off the record. One with a major international news organization agreed to be quoted on the condition of anonymity.
I asked about a new report that Hun Sen intended to monitor Internet activities and potentially text messaging. Was this rhetoric or ratcheting up pressure on the public?
“I would think it’s a more new level of monitoring or could mean also just a warning,” the reporter said.
And since many people, including reporters, use WhatsApp, could the government seize a journalist’s phone?
“Yes, it’s not so safe,” the reporter said.
Did he feel under threat of imprisonment?
“Yes, that’s the fear — of charges and being imprisoned that many journalists here have these days,” the reporter said.
“You never know what they would do.”
Andy Kopsa is an independent journalist based in New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Nation, Foreign Policy and others. She won a 2012 Society of Professional Journalists Award for Reporting Events of Public Importance and was a fellow in USC Annenberg’s Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion in American Public Life.
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