Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture has threatened an independent media outlet with closure in response to an article about a violent attack on a government critic, in a test of press freedom for the new administration of Prime Minister Hun Manet.
On September 14, the news site CambojaNews published an article about a September 12 attack on Ny Nak, a fertilizer producer and seller of fruit trees from the capital Phnom Penh, who it described as “a vocal critic of government policies.”
According to the international rights group Human Rights Watch, the attack took place on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where a group of three or four men in black uniforms and helmets forced Nak’s motorbike off the road and then beat him with steel batons.
Nak’s outspokenness had previously landed him in trouble with the authorities. In June of last year, he was released from prison after being incarcerated for 18 months on charges of incitement after making a satirical post criticizing then Prime Minister Hun Sen’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Nak runs a Facebook page called IMan-KH with around 415,000 followers, on which he has recently criticized the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) for its administrative bloat and ineffectiveness in helping Cambodian farmers.
On the morning of the attack, he posted a vague criticism of Agriculture Minister Dith Tina, one of a new generation of princelings that has taken up cabinet positions over the past few years, accusing him of posting on social media rather than taking steps to improve the lot of ordinary rural folk. (Dith Tina is the son of former Supreme Court President Dith Munty, a close ally of former Prime Minister Hun Sen, who stepped down last month after 38 years in power.)
As CambojaNews noted, the nature of the attack that took place later that day was similar to a series of attacks against opposition Candlelight Party activists that were documented by human rights groups in the months leading up to the national elections that were held in July. Human Rights Watch claims that victims of recent attacks have even noted the use of the same extendable steel batons as used in the attack on Nak.
In a statement yesterday, however, MAFF claimed that the article had breached journalistic ethics, and that it presented “no evidence” to support its implication that the attack on Ny Nak was “politically motivated.”
“MAFF has consistently upheld press freedom and individual rights of expression but maintains a strong stance against media outlets that fail to adhere to professional ethics by disseminating false information or intentional misleading public opinion based on individuals [sic] false claims and speculations,” it stated.
The statement went on to call for the publication to “rectify these serious breaches of journalistic ethics” and “take steps to ensure that such malicious intentions and defamatory speculations do not recur in the future.” Should this not happen, the MAFF statement concluded, then it would result in legal actions, the “same outcome as VOD.”
VOD, or Voice of Democracy, was closed down by the government in February after a public order from Hun Sen. In a Facebook post, the then prime minister accused VOD of harming the “dignity and reputation” of the Cambodian government after it published a relatively innocuous article about Cambodia’s support to Turkey following the devastating earthquake that month. It happens that the publication had also conducted extensive reporting on the large-scale Chinese-run cyber scam operations that have exploded in Cambodia over the past few years – in some cases highlighting their links to prominent members of the Cambodian political and business elite.
VOD had filled the gap left by the closure of the two major independent newspapers founded under the aegis of the United Nations peacekeeping mission of 1992-93: The Cambodia Daily, which was forced to close in 2017 after being presented with a massive bill for unpaid tax, and the Phnom Penh Post, which was sold to government-friendly investors the following year. Similarly, CambojaNews is one of a handful of media operations that have stepped into the breach since the closure of VOD, and watchers of Cambodian media have long suspected that it might be the government’s next target.
The CambojaNews article has since been updated to address two concerns laid out in the MAFF letter: the misspelling of one source’s name, and the inclusion of the name of a second journalist who contributed reporting to the article.
But aside from these minor omissions, there are many reasons why the attack was worth covering.
Shelve for the moment MAFF’s history of alleged involvement in the industrial-scale logging of Cambodia’s forests and the distribution of economic land concessions to the same end to government-linked tycoons and conglomerates; ignore also the government’s long track record of prosecuting opposition activists and even ordinary citizens who have criticized high-ranking officials online.
The frequent tendency for known critics of the Cambodian government to be the subjects of violence and intimidation makes it reasonable to probe a possible causal connection between Ny Nak’s criticisms of MAFF and its minister and the attack that put him in hospital. This is certainly how the victim viewed things, saying from his hospital bed that he believed his assailants “were trying to kill me for being critical of the government.”
The article also gave a MAFF spokesperson the opportunity to respond to the attack and the allegation that there was a connection between the incident and Nak’s previous criticisms of Dith Tina.
The threat against CambojaNews offers an early test of media freedom for the new administration of Prime Minister Hun Manet, who took office on August 22, replacing his father. The change in leadership, which was paralleled by a broad generational transition within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, led to speculation that there might be a liberalization of the political atmosphere in Cambodia.
So far there has been little sign of this, and MAFF’s complaint reflects the familiar political rules under which critical reporting is viewed as an attack on the reputation and honor of government officials, as well as a possible sign of nefarious oppositional intentions. In this system, journalists are expected to conform to the contours of power rather than challenging them.
The fact that individual ministries and politicians feel emboldened to threaten the closure of a media outlet publishing critical reports offers an early sign that Hun Manet’s administration will have little more tolerance for adversarial reporting than did his father’s.