The United States embassy in Phnom Penh is urging the government to ensure that Radio Free Asia and Voice of America resume their work in the country without obstruction amid the government’s push to reverse perceived democratic setbacks.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry on Monday issued an outline of steps being taken by the government to placate the European Union after it began procedures to revoke the Everything-but-arms treaty based upon setbacks to democracy, human rights and media freedom.
Included in the outline was a promise that closed media outlets are free to resume their work within the country.
RFA and VOA also shuttered operations after citing an alleged “relentless crackdown on independent voices”. Dozens of other radio stations were also shuttered during the period.
US embassy spokeswoman Emily Zeeberg said on Tuesday that US government officials are aware of the statement by the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
“The government of Cambodia should allow civil society and independent media to carry out their constitutionally protected work unhindered, and without threats of arrest,” Ms Zeeberg said. “We also urge it to allow both RFA and VOA programmes to once again be broadcast freely on Cambodian radio stations, consistent with the government’s stated commitment to a free press.”
During a workshop on Tuesday, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said The Cambodia Daily, VOA and RFA are free to reopen offices as long as they abide by government regulations.
“The three outlets accused the government of pressuring them, but there was no evidence of that,” Mr Kheng said. “Regarding VOA and RFA, their fears were manifested by themselves and they shut down their offices on their own. The Daily can operate when it has paid off its tax bill. The law requires it.”
In an email yesterday, VOA spokesman Anna Morris said that she hopes the climate for independent news media improves in the months ahead.
“Voice of America’s Khmer [language] service continues to serve its multimedia and broadcasting audience in Cambodia and will continue to provide reliable and credible news about the world, the US, Asia and Cambodia,” Ms Morris said.
RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan on Tuesday said that a number of issues will have to be resolved prior to RFA resuming its Cambodian operations.
“These include the charges against RFA journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin being dropped,” Mr Mahajan said. “I understand [their cases] are still pending despite them being freed on bail.”
Reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin worked for RFA’s Phnom Penh bureau until it was shut down last year.
Both were arrested in a hotel in the capital in November last year and were accused of sending intelligence reports to the United States, an allegation both men denied.
Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn yesterday said he has not received any word from The Cambodia Daily, RFA, nor VOA.
“The government had no intention to pressure or threaten any independent media organisation,” Mr Sophorn said. “The freedom of the press and the freedom of expression are guaranteed by the law.”
“In terms of the two former RFA journalists charged by the court, they are under the jurisdiction of the judicial system and the ministry cannot intervene,” he added.
Meanwhile, the National Assembly is also reviewing a five-year ban on more than 100 members of the former opposition CNRP party following threats of the Everything-but-arms treaty being revoked by the EU.
An amendment to the political parties law could pave the way for the former opposition politicians to resume political work after being banned for five years by the Supreme Court following the dissolution of the CNRP last year.
EU Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar said on Tuesday evening that he has taken note of the moves being made by the government.
“We’ve also taken good note of that statement yesterday by the government which addresses a number of areas where the EU and others have expressed concerns,” he said of the Foreign Affairs Ministry statement. “There’s a lot that’s very positive in that statement and we look forward to seeing what’s expressed there taken forward in practice.”
“In terms of the position on the EBA, there is contact going on between senior officials on the EU side and senior officials of the Cambodian government discussing the issues that have been raised by the EU in the context, in relation to the conventions which form conditionality for a country to benefit from the EBA,” he added. “I don’t want to speculate on the outcome of those discussions, but I think in that context, both the government statement yesterday and the announcement by the National Assembly are important elements.”