On September 14, the Cambodian news outlet CambojaNews published an article about an attack on a government critic that took place two days earlier. The particulars of this assault are interesting but extraneous to this article. In any case, the Agriculture Ministry subsequently claimed that CambojaNews had defamed it, so instructed 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.” If the publication refused, the ministry said, it would result in legal actions and the “same outcome as VOD.” In other words, the news outlet would be forcibly closed. VOD, or Voice of Democracy, an independent newspaper, was shut down earlier this year after allegedly defaming Hun Manet, now Cambodia’s prime minister.
This was followed up by a tweet from the agricultural minister, Dith Tina, that revealed what one might expect about how Cambodia’s princeling generation debates complex questions. “If you cannot distinguish fact from claim, you shouldn’t call yourself journalist!” he stated, which is about as meaningful as the argument that Cambodia cannot be undemocratic because people can vote, or that Tina’s tweeting constitutes ministerial work.
In any case, that’s about the level of the Cambodian government’s understanding of free speech: we, the government, can make any spurious accusation we choose – opposition leader Kem Sokha was kept in detention for five years based on an accusation! – but journalists cannot report on allegations or rumor; it’s pure facts and nothing else, and only facts that we decide are facts, and if we don’t like the allegations, we’ll sue for defamation rather than investigating whether they’re true. If Phnom Penh has its way, journalism would either be of the sewer-press sort of the pro-government Khmer Times or the mere rewriting of press releases and economic updates. Or a combination of the two, like Fresh News, a depressing example of media entrepreneurialism, having found a gap in the market that no one actually wanted. In any case, that’s the future of news media inside Cambodia. It’s a depressing picture, and I’d like to hear from an optimist how they think anything will improve. One might add to this the news that the Southeast Asia Globe has just announced that it will also close at the end of this month.
However, as it happens, around this time it was also announced that VOD would be restarting its news service via social media next month from its new base in Tacoma, Washington. My first thought was, finally! Take newspapers overseas! The Cambodia Daily did the same after it was closed down in 2017. Radio Free Asia and Voice of Democracy churn out excellent articles on Cambodia and they’re based in the U.S. Many of the best reports on corruption or environmental degradation in Cambodia have been published by foreign newspapers, such as Japan’s Nikkei Asia.
In our globalized world, why not have a daily online newspaper about Cambodia that is published some 7,000 miles away in Tacoma? It doesn’t make much of a difference when you’re an editor working off Microsoft Word or when picking up a telephone to call a government spokesman if you’re sitting in an office in Phnom Penh or Paris, except you might have to start work in the early hours to be in the right time zone. Of course, you could be blocked. Yet, anyone can access blocked sites in Cambodia if they know how to work a VPN. If the United States and the European governments are short on ideas of how to spend their millions in Cambodia, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to arrange classes nationwide to teach the basics of free-to-use VPNs and provide a fund so that certain institutions can pay to access the more costly though superior VPNs.
Even if registered abroad, newspapers can still retain the services of Cambodian and Cambodia-based foreign journalists. Make them employees, certainly. That way, if they are arrested, the Cambodian authorities would be arresting an employee of an American company, which might compel a little more grit from the U.S. embassy. Indeed, appreciate the massive difference between the Cambodian government shutting down a Cambodian business because of Cambodian law, and the Cambodian government banning a foreign-owned business from operating in the country. In real terms, it’s the same outcome. But the narrative is very different, and even Phnom Penh must understand that it will take more flak for having repressed a foreign newspaper. The Cambodian Center for Independent Media would be wise to at least consider a move abroad since one suspects the government will soon go after its excellent new site Kamnotra, which has revolutionized statistical journalism in Cambodia.
The uncharitable might see this as running away from the problem. Is it not better to stand up to the Cambodian autocrats and demand they respect your right to free speech inside Cambodia? Fine, but no one ought to recommend courage from others. Leave it to the academics to search for the correct adjective for Cambodia’s political system and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – but it will do to call it a “bully.” And, sometimes, it’s sensible to avoid a fight with a bully. Cambodia’s leaders delight in ostentatious shows of power, in not just crushing rivals but humiliating them. The CPP taunts its victims like a deranged child slowly pulling wings off a locust.
It spent months, near-on a year, filing lawsuits against the Candlelight Party, forcing the party to beg for forgiveness and grovel just to be allowed to remain legal, and then a few months before July’s general election the CPP banned the opposition party anyway. Why not finish off the Candlelight Party last year? Why the need for the groveling and defections and humiliation? Because the CPP is a bully. What did it do when it banned the VOD? Hun Sen didn’t just offer it the chance of survival if it begged a little more for forgiveness. He then humiliated the workforce, offering government jobs (really, non-jobs) to those laid off. Many took the party’s dollar, which the CPP paraded as a sign of its benevolence.
It’s difficult to see how this will change under Hun Manet, not least because many of the old guard still are the actual decision-makers. But Manet and his “young” cohort of ministers were raised in this bully spirit. Don’t just defeat your rival but embarrass and decimate him. Don’t just critique an article by CambojaNews but insinuate you’ll shut down the paper unless it apologizes and publicly admits your definition of the truth.
Worryingly, these princelings aren’t just entitled; they’ve conned themselves into thinking that they achieved their way into office. Fear anyone who thinks they’ve earned a job that was awarded by patronage; they’ll go to great lengths to force others to think this way, too. Of course, Hun Manet knows, deep down, that he owes everything to his father, and that will likely gnaw at him. Indeed, Cambodia is now run by a generation with chips on their shoulders and blandishments of having earned their stripes. In other words, today’s politicians are even more thin-skinned and weak-backed than the old lot. One struggles to imagine free speech is going to get any freer or this government being less likely to see every criticism as slander. Maybe it’s sensible to head to safer ground.