Some political analysts are claiming that laws are being used as political tools to silence critics ahead of next year’s national election, despite the government maintaining its recent crackdown on media outlets is about strengthening the rule of law.
The government has the Cambodia Daily newspaper and radio organisations Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) in its cross-hairs, using tax laws and media licence requirements to possibly close down their operations.
The Daily, which was founded in 1993, has been ordered to pay about $6 million in back taxes by September 4.
If it does not comply, it faces its assets being seizured and its business closed.
The Daily has never paid taxes since it started operations in Cambodia.
Over the past couple of weeks, the government has also shut down about 10 radio stations that were renting airtime to RFA and VOA.
On Monday, the Daily urged intervention from other governments, saying it was an independent voice offering citizens reports in the lead-up to the national elections in July 2018.
“Today, the Daily is under siege,” the paper said.
“The massive bill the government has handed us is an assault on press freedom thinly disguised as a tax dispute.”
Human rights groups joined the paper’s rallying call days later, posting photos of their staff holding placards that read: “Save Media Freedom.”.
Ear Sophal, the author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy” and an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, claimed the government is hunting critics to keep the public under-informed to ensure a victory at the 2018 poll.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “instead of being kicked-out, they should be celebrated and expanded.”
If the government perceives the media outlets as hurting their chances to maintain power, then the true meaning behind the recent legal actions is to silence them, he claimed.
“The implication is silencing reporting,” he said. “Without independent voices, there are no checks and balances in Cambodia.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia also raised concern recently over the government’s actions on the media outlets, urging authorities to ensure “full political and civil rights, and media freedoms” before the election.
Political analyst Meas Ny claimed that the role of the media is to present the truth to the public, so when the government shutters critical outlets’ operations, it is a tactic to control public opinion by depriving citizens of access to reports that contradict the government’s own.
“It has affected the right of access to information and the right of expression,” he claimed of the recent moves by the government.
“People will not get enough information about what is happening in society, and information is very important for a democratic country.
“The government accused those radio stations of not following the law, but looking in-depth, the government only closed independent radio stations, or the radio stations that were critical,” he added.
“The government should be open-minded and accept the truth when it is reported accurately instead of accusing outlets of being unprofessional.”
Ouk Kim Seng, spokesman for the Ministry of Information, said that any radio station that was closed can file a complaint at the ministry if they are dissatisfied with the ministry’s actions.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the government is simply implementing the law.
“There is no choice but to take legal action in order to protect democracy and strengthen the rule of law in Cambodia,” he said.
Toeuk Phan, an 81-year-old villager in Kampong Chhnang province, who often listened to RFA and VOA broadcasts, said he was disappointed with the government’s actions.
“I used to listen to their broadcasts, but now it’s like I have been sent back 20 years in the past,” he said, noting free-thinking citizens will see the actions for what they really are.
“I understand – when people have the chance to listen to independent media, they know the truth and so the government is trying to stop them.”