(CNN) One of Cambodia’s last independent media outlets was shut down by Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of July’s national elections, a move condemned by rights groups as a blow to press freedom.
Voice of Democracy (VOD), a local station of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media based in the capital Phnom Penh, published radio and online reports on labor and legal issues, environmental crime and political corruption.
It reported last week that Hun Manet, the prime minister’s son, allegedly signed an agreement to provide aid to Turkey, which was hit by a catastrophic earthquake last week. The report alluded to an apparent overstepping of his powers.
Hun Sen denied the report and issued statements on Facebook accusing the outlet of assaulting his son and violating the “dignity and reputation” of the Cambodian government.
He also refused to accept an official apology from VOD, adding that editorial staff “should look for jobs differently.”
Government officials on Monday revoked VOD’s operating license and blocked its English and Khmer websites.
Several VOD employees took to social media to share news of the company’s sudden shutdown.
“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 expected it to happen, but not so quickly,” he said. “We fought for the truth. We always fought, but some people obviously couldn’t handle it.”
“There are so many Cambodian stories to tell about Cambodia and that 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 suppressed so the outside world can’t see inside.”
“We have to face the reality and the challenges it brings, but we will face it day by day.”
The prime minister’s office has not yet responded to a CNN request for further comment on the VOD closure.
Hun Sen has been the country’s prime minister since 1985, making him one of the longest-serving leaders in the world.
During his tenure, several independent newspapers and websites were shut down, and dozens of opposition figures were imprisoned or forced into exile.
“Voice of Democracy has served as an important pillar 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 repercussions for Cambodian society as a whole.”
“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 was “a clear warning to other critical voices” months before the July national elections.
Supporters hold placards outside the Voice of Democracy office in Phnom Penh on February 13, 2023.
“The Prime Minister should withdraw this cumbersome and disproportionate order immediately,” it said.
Exiled former Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy said VOD’s closure was “obviously politically motivated”.
“Essentially all media in Cambodia is now controlled by the government,” he told CNN. “It also occurs in connection with [the] continued unlawful detention of opposition supporters and routine intimidation of those who continue to operate.”
“Governments [around the world] must educate citizens about the dangers [those in power in] Cambodia because the Cambodian government will not do its part.”
Western ambassadors in the country expressed concern about VOD’s closure.
“We are deeply concerned by the abrupt decision to revoke VOD’s media license,” the US Embassy in Phnom Penh said in a statement. “A free and independent press is the cornerstone of any functioning democracy, providing the public and decision-makers with facts and holding governments accountable,” she added.
“We call on the Cambodian authorities to reconsider this decision.”
“Germany believes in free access to information as the basis for free and fair elections,” said the German embassy. “Cambodia’s freedom of the press has lost one of its last independent media ventures.”