One of Cambodia’s last remaining independent media outlets has been shut down by Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of national elections in July, in a move condemned by rights groups as a blow to press freedom.
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 reported last week that Hun Manet, son of the prime minister, allegedly signed an agreement to donate aid to Turkey, which was struck by a catastrophic earthquake last week. The report alluded to an apparent overstep of his authority.
Hun Sen refuted the report and issued statements on Facebook accusing the outlet of attacking his son and hurting the “dignity and reputation” of the Cambodian government.
He also refused to accept an official apology from VOD and added that its newsroom staff “should look for jobs elsewhere.”
Government officials revoked VOD’s operating license on Monday and blocked its websites in English and Khmer.
Several VOD staff took to social media to share news of the company’s sudden closure.
“It has reached the end point,” wrote Mech Dara, one of its reporters, on Twitter. “I (thought) we might have survived longer.”
He told CNN that many journalists were “still in shock” after Monday’s events.
“We were expecting it to happen but not so quickly,” he said. “We fought for the truth. We always have but clearly some people could not handle it.”
“There are so many stories to be told about Cambodia from Cambodia and this extends to the wider region – countries like Myanmar and Vietnam,” he added. “It’s a space that’s getting narrower and narrower and voices are stifled so that the outside world can’t see in.”
“We have to face the reality and the challenges that come along with it but we will take it one day at a time.”
The prime minister’s office hasn’t yet responded to a CNN request for further comment about the VOD closure.
Hun Sen has served as the country’s prime minister since 1985, making him one of the world’s longest serving leaders.
During his tenure, several independent newspapers and websites have been shut down and dozens of opposition figures jailed or forced into exile.
“Voice of Democracy has served as an important mainstay of independent investigative reporting and objective criticism for years,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hun Sen’s closure of VOD is a devastating blow to media freedom in the country and will have an impact across Cambodian society.”
“The Cambodian people are the ultimate losers because they have lost one of the last remaining sources of independent news on issues affecting their lives, livelihoods and human rights.”
Amnesty International said the closure served as “a clear warning to other critical voices” months before national elections in July.
“The Prime Minister should immediately withdraw this heavy handed and disproportionate order,” it said.
Exiled former Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy said VOD’s closure was “obviously politically motivated.”
“Substantially all of Cambodia’s media is now government controlled,” he told CNN. “It also occurs in the context of [the] ongoing wrongful imprisonment of opposition supporters and routine intimidation of those who continue to operate.”
“Governments [around the world] must educate citizens about the dangers of [those in power in] Cambodia because the Cambodian government won’t play its part in doing so.”
Western ambassadors in the country expressed their concerns about the closure of VOD.
“We are deeply troubled by the abrupt decision to revoke VOD’s media license,” according to a statement from the US embassy in Phnom Penh. “A free and independent press is the cornerstone of any functioning democracy, providing the public and decision makers with facts and holding governments to account,” it added.
“We urge the Cambodian authorities to revisit this decision.”
“Germany believes in the free access of information as the basis for free and fair elections,” said the German embassy. “The freedom of press in Cambodia has lost one of its last remaining independent media outlets.”