Closure of Cambodia Daily signals an escalating crackdown on dissent
On 4th September 2017, Cambodia Daily - a vigorously outspoken English-language newspaper - published its last edition. It was effectively shut down by the authorities following the imposition of a $6.3 million tax bill, which they were given a month to pay. Although the newspaper accepts that there may have been a "legitimate dispute" over the mount of tax owed, the tax assessment was not based on any audit of the newspaper's accounting books, nor was there any explanation at how the authorities arrived at the figure. The paper's owner, Deborah Krisher-Steele, said:
“The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part Cambodia’s free press”.
Krisher-Steele and her husband have since been ordered not to leave Cambodia until the tax bill is settled. Cambodia Daily closes its doors after 24 years, during which time it had reported consistently on human rights abuses, corruption and abuses of authority by the government of Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985.
The closure comes amidst a heightening crackdown on dissent in Cambodia, where civic space is already rated as 'repressed' on the CIVICUS Monitor. Many political analysts have observed that the increased pressure on independent media is influenced by upcoming elections in 2018, when Hun Sen is expected to face a significant challenge from a revitalised opposition. Other media outlets, including radio stations, have also been recently shut down for alleged regulatory reasons. Meanwhile, international media outlets, including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, have been ordered not to report independent news, resulting in a lack of impartial and objective information reaching people living in rural parts of the country.
In late August, American freelance journalist Geoffrey Cain was also caught up in the widening dragnet on dissent when Cambodia's interior ministry announced that it had opened an investigation into allegations that Cain was plotting to overthrow Hun Sen's government. Cain denied the allegations completely saying that:
"Whatever safety I had in Cambodia is not assured anymore. It's sent a chill down my spine".
BREAKING: CNRP Leader Kem Sokha Arrested for ‘Treason”: https://t.co/nMQoZMVksD— The Cambodia Daily (@cambodiadaily) September 2, 2017
Cambodia's increasingly restricted civic space is also having an impact on civil society organisations (CSOs), human rights defenders (HRDs) and the political opposition. In the most recent incident in the ongoing crackdown, on 3rd September 2017 authorities arrested opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason. Alleging “a secret plan of conspiracy between Kem Sokha, his group, and foreigners that harms Cambodia”, the arrest came without further details from the authorities. The arrest and charges are the latest in a long line of legal harassment incidents against the opposition and civil society ahead of the 2018 elections.
Human rights group ADHOC is among those organisations still being targeted, with five of its staff held in pre-trial detention for 427 days before finally being released in June 2017. They still face trial on charges of bribery, with the trial date yet to be set. Rights groups have called for the charges against the five to be dropped, claiming that they are politically motivated and designed to curb ADHOC's human rights monitoring ahead of the 2018 elections.
International CSOs have also been affected, with the US-funded National Democratic Institute being ordered to cease operations and remove all foreign staff from its Cambodia offices in late August 2017.
Individual human rights defenders have also been caught up in the repression. On 15th August 2017, Cambodian civil society groups made renewed calls for the release of human rights defender Tep Vanny, marking one year since her imprisonment. Vanny had been arrested and charged in August 2016 following her tireless advocacy in defence of evicted community members of the Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh. Vanny said:
“It is clear that the authorities are using the courts to lock me up, silence my freedom of expression and break my spirit. They want to stop me from advocating and seeking a solution for the remaining people from Boeung Kak Lake as well as other campaigns to demand justice in our society”.
On 22nd August 2017, Cambodian police used forceful tactics against a small group of protesters outside the Ministry of Land Management. The group was demanding that the government resolve a land conflict affecting at least 15 families when police pushed them aside, injuring two female protesters and breaking the group's megaphone. After demonstrating for several hours outside the Ministry, a spokesperson informed the group that their case was still being examined, despite the group having lost their land to a private company as far back as 2010.
In a show of force, on 4th September 2017 Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguard unit proudly displayed the strength of its military might in an event to mark the anniversary of the unit's formation. Speaking at the event, bodyguard chief Hing Bun Heang also issued a warning to any potential protesters, saying:
“When there is an issue like a protest or strike to demand something that opposes democracy or breaks the law… this force will cooperate with Military Police and National Police to maintain security”.