Radio Silence: Cambodia’s Media Crackdown

A “radio silence” has descended upon Cambodia, both literally and figuratively. As the nation prepares for its July 2018 general elections, severe restrictions have been imposed on Cambodian media, ultimately resulting in the cessation of many major publications and outlets. Whilst the current government, led by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen, denies that the crackdown is politically motivated or affiliated, strong evidence suggests otherwise. Moreover, the restriction of certain media has reduced the capacity for independent discussion and debate concerning Cambodian politics.

Among the most notable media publications affected by the government crackdown is The Cambodia Daily, a newspaper established in 1993 that operated on the mantra, “without fear or favour.” Paradoxically, it was the fear and favour of the Cambodian government that led to its demise. On September 4, 2017, the paper announced its immediate closure, citing a $6.3 million tax bill that was allegedly politically motivated. Whilst the Ministry of Information denied such claims, it is indelible that the Daily posed a significant political threat to the CPP. Indeed, in its final publication, the paper investigated the arrest of Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) President and opposition leader Kem Sokha, determining the charges to be politically motivated and indicative of a Cambodian government “descending into outright dictatorship.” Editor Chhorn Chansy encapsulated the quandaries associated with the Daily’s’ closure in a statement to The Nation, noting that he was “concerned that there is only one voice, one side.”

And what an inherently biased side it is. According to Al Jazeera, a Reporters Without Borders report found that eight of the ten main channels in Cambodian television belonged to individuals with political ties to the CPP. Moreover, the recent termination of radio licenses of Radio Free Asia and other independent radio broadcasters has limited the scope of available political information and discussion.

The ramifications of the crackdown are dualistically unethical and dangerous. Firstly, the suppression of media essentially silences Cambodian voices. This infringes upon the intrinsic human right to freedom of opinion and expression and establishes the crackdown as inherently unethical. Furthermore, the regulation of available information and discussion perpetuates the rule of the CPP, effectively diminishing power held by the opposition and encouraging a dictatorial government.

Perhaps most troubling about the crackdown is its capacity to encourage violence. Independent Cambodian media outlets were essentially an avenue for individuals to peacefully protest current government policies and present alternative opinions. In the wake of such voices being suppressed, the likelihood of physical violence as a means of protest and expression increases. Protests in more public forums also pose the risk of suffering from physical government suppression. As political support for the CPP wavers, evidenced by a close victory in the 2013 general elections and the more recent local elections, Prime Minister Sen has threatened civil war. According to ABC News, Sen has remarked that he is prepared to lose “100 to 200 lives to ensure peace and continued development.”

This approach – utilizing violence and suppression as a means to attain peace – is fundamentally flawed. Instead of encouraging amity, Sen’s employment of threats of violence, in conjunction with the suppression of media, has only fuelled a climate of political dissent. For the sake of an informed and harmonious society, Cambodia requires a plethora of media outlets drawing upon a range of sources. It is then that Cambodia’s current radio silence will be replaced by a vibrant array of voices and opinions.

Emily Forrester