Cambodia has experienced a disturbing and pronounced decline in basic freedoms as authorities use the legal system to restrict and criminalize human rights work, youth activism, trade unions, independent journalism, opposition politicians and other voices critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, according to CIVICUS – the global civil society alliance.
“The misuse of the criminal justice system to harass and prosecute human rights defenders, unionists and journalists and the shutting down of media outlets highlights the democratic regression in Cambodia,” CIVICUS said in a Cambodia country report released on Thursday. Hun Sen, the organisation said, had “overseen a systematic assault on fundamental freedoms in Cambodia over the past decade” and the country was now on a watch list of “repressive” countries joining, among others, Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Peru.
Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific researcher for CIVICUS, said the misuse of the criminal justice system and the “systematic attack on civic space in the country” contravened Cambodia’s international human rights obligations.
One of Cambodia’s last remaining independent media outlets has been shut down ahead of national elections in July, in a move condemned by rights groups as a blow to press freedom, CNN reports. Based in the capital Phnom Penh, Voice of Democracy (VOD), a local outlet run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, published radio and online reports about labor and rights issues, environmental crime and political corruption.
“It has reached the end point,” wrote Mech Dara, one of its reporters, on Twitter (below). “I (thought) we might have survived longer.”
My teach told me it has come but i do not believe it but it has reached the end point…everyone keep asking me how long can we survive. i told we might survive longer than we expected but it is very shorter than our expectation @VOD_English @VODKhmer https://t.co/MIjI24hFAw
— Mech Dara (@MechDara1) February 12, 2023
VOD was founded in 2003 by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization promoting and defending media freedom, The Times adds. In an idealistic mission statement, it envisioned “a Cambodian society where everybody is well-informed and empowered to strengthen democratic governance and respect human rights.” VOD is now run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, and the shutdown involved the revocation of the center’s media license.
International rights organizations condemned the VOD shutdown, which comes months ahead of the Cambodia’s national elections in July. Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to win amid the People’s Party crackdown on opposition groups and dissent, NPR adds. “Going after VOD is a good indication that scheduled July 23 poll will be neither free nor fair,” said Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson in a statement.
Hana Young, Amnesty International Deputy Regional Director, said:
“This is a blatant attempt to slam the door on what’s left of independent media in the country, and a clear warning to other critical voices months before national elections. The Prime Minister should immediately withdraw this heavy-handed and disproportionate order.
“Arbitrarily shutting down an outspoken media organization will have an immediate chilling effect on anyone who still dares to ask questions about the actions of the Cambodian government. It also comes against a backdrop of ongoing repression against anyone remotely critical of the Prime Minister and his family.