Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen will preside over the country’s first Southeast Asian Games in May and national elections in July, and he has ticked every box required for an orderly transfer of power to his eldest son Hun Manet at some point in the coming years.
It’s a trifecta of the tallest order and over recent months the region’s longest-serving leader has bluntly stated what his expectations are in terms of media coverage. This month’s closure of the independent news outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) has served as a warning for those who fail to toe the line.
In regard to the Southeast Asian Games, Hun Sen stated quite clearly in December, “I would like to, once again, appeal to public and private media to actively involve [sic] in the campaign to advertise and clean up homes and society.”
Those campaigns included “one person plays one sport,” “Cambodia is beautiful”, “Cambodia reduces traffic accidents and reduces the effects of drugs” and “sports live in peace” – inside and outside the country – to be conducted over the 100 days leading up to the games.
At the fifth annual meeting between Hun Sen and Cambodian journalists on January 14, he made a further eight recommendations. One request was for the media to “establish a partnership with the Royal Government by acting as a bridge between the state institution to the people and vice versa.”
The prime minister has also asked media organizations to “strengthen the code of ethics and professional practice as well as oppose opportunists under the label of journalism to maintain the values and dignity.”
Cambodia spin doctors are on par with the likes of Russia, China, and former United States President Donald Trump in using “fake news” – that last refuge of authoritarians – when in need of an excuse to counter unwanted critical opinion.
As such, Cambodian-based journalists are expected to “jointly fight against fake news and avoid being a fake news distributor, causing the nation to fall into chaos.”
This was evident when VOD closed because of a disputed quote, which would usually require a simple clarification or correction to be negotiated between the reporter and the government spokesperson, like adults.
This was done but apparently, it was not enough. VOD was closed and its staff was relentlessly vilified online through a spate of attacks by paid-up pro-government forces. The attacks were misogynistic and one editorial by the Phnom Penh Post in response to a BBC report was an own goal.
And, upset by an international backlash, semi-official outlets like Fresh News ran spoon-fed headlines from officials like: “Cambodian Government Does Not Attack VOD; VOD Attacks Government by Spreading False Information.”
Then this: “VOD’s Misleading News Aims to Seriously Destroy Trust Among Leaders of the Royal Government.” Really? A bit more pluck followed, with Hun Sen alleging foreign interference, an old chestnut, but none of the offending parties were named.
Financial backers of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), which held the VOD license, include the Danish humanitarian group Dan Church Aid with its roots in the Danish National Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Also backing it is the German left-wing NGO Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Transparency International Cambodia, the U.S.-based Christian advocacy group Bread for the World, and the faith-based Swedish development organization Diakonia.
Hardly the stuff of foreign-funded revolutionaries, although Fresh News bolstered the conspiracy theories, claiming, “Russia Supports Shutdown of VOD”.
Of course, the multitude of non-independent media, controlled by the government, ruling elites, and friendly business interests will fall into line with the media mantra currently being doled out – and ensure Cambodia’s good news story is untainted when told.
It’s a message designed to reinforce the delusions of those in power and make money from the inner circles as the games, elections and transfer of power approach. If only the rest of the world would believe it too.