The Cambodian government must end its escalating campaign of politically-motivated harassment, intimidation and legal action against the media, nongovernmental groups and human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch says. The organization warned that the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is widening its efforts to curtail or silence independent voices in the country.
During the week of August 21st 2017, the Cambodian government announced the expulsion of the nongovernmental, US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), threatened to close the independent nonpartisan daily newspaper the Cambodia Daily, forcibly ended broadcasts by the stations operated by Mohanokor Radio, which is owned by an opposition member of parliament, and stations operated by Voice of Democracy (VOD) Phnom Penh, which airs independent reports and viewpoints. The government also rescinded licenses to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia to broadcast in Cambodia on baseless allegations of registration and tax violations.
“The Cambodian government’s shutdown of independent media outlets and a respected democracy promotion group shows that Hun Sen is intensifying efforts to curb criticism of his rule,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Diplomats and donors should put Hun Sen on notice that if he doesn’t reverse course, elections in 2018 won’t be considered credible.”
On August 23rd, Cambodia’s foreign affairs ministry informed NDI that it must “stop operations and expel foreign staff from the Kingdom,” citing the repressive Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO). The arbitrary action, based on unsubstantiated allegations that the group failed to follow proper registration and taxation procedures, is the first forced closure of a nongovernmental organization using authority under that law. Human Rights Watch and other groups have severely criticized provisions of the law as violating the rights to freedom of expression and association.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement in support of NDI, which is funded by the US Democratic Party. It cited the group’s valid memorandum of understanding with the National Election Committee (NEC), its long history of impartial capacity-building activities with all political parties including the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and its previously unchallenged submission of registration documents required under the new law in September 2016.
The Cambodian government has also set the stage for shuttering the Cambodia Daily, an independent and well-regarded source of news in English and Khmer operating since 1993. On August 5, 2017, tax authorities hit the newspaper with an arbitrary US$6.3 million tax bill despite refusing to review financial records provided by the publisher. The government alleged non-payment since 2007, and gave the newspaper 30 days to pay or “pack up and go,” as stated in a recent speech by Hun Sen, in which he also described the Cambodia Daily as a “thief.” In Davos in May, Hun Sen also criticized the newspaper for its critical coverage and referred to its reporters as “servants of foreigners.”
“The Cambodia Daily has served as an important mainstay of independent news and objective criticism for 25 years even as the government’s tolerance for critical views has markedly declined,” Robertson said. “Closing the Daily would be a devastating blow to freedom of the press that would have an impact well beyond the paper’s readership.”
The Cambodia Daily’s editor-in-chief Jodie Dejonge stated this week that she expects the paper will be raided and closed by authorities on September 4, the tax department’s deadline for payment.
The government has also taken steps against a consortium of nongovernmental organizations that worked together as the election-watch “Situation Room,” which reported on irregularities in the local commune elections in June. The government recently put the Situation Room under investigation for allegedly violating the new law on nongovernmental groups and serving as a base for a possible “color revolution” to topple the government.
Since the government ordered the Situation Room to stop its monitoring activities, three respected consortium organizations have received notices that they must address potential back tax issues. The three groups are the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL).
“The list of news, human rights and democracy-promoting organizations under attack by the Cambodian government seems to grow by the minute,” Robertson said. “Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule is being chiseled in stone.”