The democratic transition that started at the end of the 1980s allowed the emergence of a press that flourished until the long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a ruthless war against independent journalism before the 2018 elections.
The country’s main daily is Rasmei Kampuchea, which adapts its coverage to government viewpoints. New publications provide some competition, including Nokorwat News and Nokor Thom, which are trying to find a place for themselves while carefully tending their relations with ruling circles. These newspapers operate alongside a bilingual Khmer/English press which, in the past, carried the message of democracy, but succumbed to government attacks. The Phnom Penh Post lost its independence after it was bought, in 2018, by a tycoon with close ties to the prime minister. A few months later, more than 30 independent radio stations were forced to shut down. Among them was VOD, the Voice of Democracy, whose programmes were re-transmitted by local stations, thereby playing a major role in the dissemination of independent information, especially in the countryside. The station, however, is broadcasting its programmes and videos on the web.
Worried by the possibility that he might have to give up power after more than 30 years in office, Hun Sen went after the press mercilessly ahead of parliamentary elections in July 2018. Radio stations and newspapers were silenced, newsrooms purged, journalists prosecuted – leaving the independent media sector devastated. Since then, the few attempts to bring independent journalism back to life have drawn the wrath of ruling circles.
In 1992, Cambodia ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and adopted a series of provisions guaranteeing the free practice of journalism. A 1995 press law allows for defamation cases to be settled amicably. But, in practice, the authorities often resort to the penal code to prosecute and arrest – without a warrant – journalists who are looking into sensitive issues. The criminal law provisions involved are articles 494 and 495, concerning “inciting crime”. The prime minister also took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to have a state of emergency law adopted that allows him to censor all journalistic content that he dislikes.
Four major business groups share the mass-media market; all of them are run by press magnates close to the Hun Sen clan. For example, the prime minister’s daughter, Hun Mana, heads an enormous conglomerate that owns newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television networks and internet sites. They are all quick to praise her father. The wave of closures and taming of newsrooms in 2017 and 2018 amounted to a clean sweep that deprived Cambodians of any access to information other than that disseminated by the media companies linked to Hun Sen. In addition, the online news site, Fresh News, is a mouthpiece for pro-government propaganda.
Given the pro-government stance of the traditional media, Cambodians are relying on the web for reliable and independent news. Internet use is booming thanks to the wide availability of mobile phones. But users are at the mercy of the algorithms behind Facebook, the country’s most popular platform. The algorithms tend to favour officially sponsored content. Ultimately, the government hopes to establish a Chinese-style digital Great Wall. A decree to this effect has been signed, authorising the government to monitor all communications and to block certain kinds of sites by creating a single connection point to the web for all 15 million Cambodian web users.
Environmental journalism is dangerous in Cambodia. Two reporters were murdered in 2014 because of ther investigations into deforestation and illegal fishing. Since the clampdown in 2017, journalists can be arrested under false pretences, and some spend months in prison on trumped-up charges of “terrorism” or “pornography”. Reporting on corruption cases that directly or indirectly affect the Prime Minister or his entourage has become virtually impossible. Faced with these challenges, the protection provided by the Cambodian Journalists’ Alliance (CamboJA), founded in late 2019, represents a breath of fresh air for journalists.