Leading opposition newspaper Moneaksekar Khmer, or Khmer Conscience, disappeared from the newsstands on Friday after over ten years of publication, delivering a blow to the political opposition’s ability to challenge the government in the media.
The Khmer-language paper’s absence was promised in a letter by the paper’s publisher and editor-in-chief Dam Sith sent earlier this week to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Facing a government lawsuit claiming defamation, disinformation and incitement, Mr Sith wrote a pleading letter to Mr Hun Sen apologizing profusely for a number of critical articles that the government had taken issue with. He also said he would halt publication of Moneaksekar Khmer in exchange for the lawsuit being dropped.
Phnom Penh Deputy Prosecutor Sok Kalyan said by telephone that he had received a request from the government’s attorney on Friday to withdraw the lawsuit against Mr Sith, but added that he had not yet made a decision as to whether he would proceed with the case or not.
Contacted by telephone, Mr Sith, who is a member of the Sam Rainsy Party board of directors, confirmed that his newspaper did not come out Friday because publication has ceased entirely. He declined to comment further.
The disappearance of Moneaksekar Khmer from newsstands comes as the latest in a string of blows to the political opposition-particularly to its presence in Cambodian media.
Late last month, Hang Chakra, the editor-in-chief of the pro-SRP newspaper Khmer Machas Srok was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison for disinformation, over articles claiming a conflict between Cabinet Minister Sok An and Interior Minister Sar Kheng. He is currently serving his sentence in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison. In March of last year, SRP-affiliated Sralanh Khmer newspaper publisher Thach Ket, who was also a member of the opposition party’s board directors, defected to the ruling CPP after facing numerous lawsuits. The publisher immediately shifted his paper’s focus from pro-opposition to pro-CPP.
The loss of newspapers and prominent sympathetic journalists is particularly problematic for the political opposition given the current local media environment. Numerous critics have noted that almost all radio and television betrays a pro-CPP bias. The opposition, by contrast, has been largely limited to two hours of radio each day and a handful of small newspapers.
Some political observers and media experts on Friday mourned the loss of Moneaksekar Khmer, but were also highly critical of Mr Sith’s decision to shutter the paper and apologize, saying it set a potentially worrisome precedent.
Koul Panha, director of Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said Thursday that the SRP had lost one of its few outlets to spread its message. Perhaps even more troublesome for the party, he added, is Mr Sith’s apology for the content of his newspaper, which may dump cold water on opposition complaints concerning the government and the ruling party.
“It is the impact to the opposition party, meaning that previous criticisms were mistaken,” Mr Panha said of the apology.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said Friday that Moneaksekar Khmer had played an important role in the Cambodian media, acting as the voice of the opposition against many other pro-government newspapers. “Moneaksekar Khmer had given the voice from the other side, the voice that doesn’t support the government, so we’ve lost the balance in the media,” Mr Chhean Nariddh said. “We are regretful that opposition newspapers are losing gradually; we want the opposition newspapers to have balance with the pro-government newspapers.”
Mr Chhean Nariddh added that Mr Sith’s decision to halt publication of Moneaksekar Khmer and publicly apologize for the stories it published could have serious implications for the future of local media.
“We don’t want to have a culture of apology,” he said. “The court has not found him guilty yet, the decision to apologize is serious.”
Mam Sonando, the outspoken owner of Beehive Radio, which does sell airtime to the SRP and Human Rights Party, said he believed that Mr Sith made the decision to do away with his publication under pressure from the government. He added, however, that as a person ostensibly working to be a public voice for the political opposition, Mr Sith should have stood by his convictions, even if it meant going to jail.
“They [the government] would not abandon one strategy of threatening but that’s their issue. Our issue, as the challengers, must also be clear,” he said. “If we say something and they arrest us to put [us] in jail, just be jailed. And if you don’t want to be jailed and apologize, it is wrong.
“They can put me in jail but [they] can’t jail my ideas and will,” he continued. “I was jailed two times. I say that if there’s a third time, I will ride a motodup to wait out in front of the prison.” Mr Sith was briefly imprisoned last year, spending a week in pretrial detention at Prey Sar over a disinformation suit filed by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. The editor was released at the behest of the prime minister.
Mr Sonando also took issue with SRP President Sam Rainsy for being conspicuously quiet of late and not coming out to publicly back his people in the face of the current spate of lawsuits against journalists and opposition leaders.
“If we are afraid, what are we being leaders for?” he asked, referring to Mr Rainsy.
SRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said Friday that Mr Sith had not upset the party by apologizing to the premier. “He is still with the party. We know about his difficulties; we are not angry,” he said. “I am not surprised because I know that the policy of the current leaders, who don’t want the opposition voice so they use all means to get rid of it,” Mr Chhay Eang continued, adding that he was worried about the SRP losing public support as a result.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith could not be reached on Friday, but Council of Ministers spokesman and Secretary of State Phay Siphan said that Mr Sith had made the decision to shutter his paper on his own. “It is his personal issue, no one forced him close [Moneaksekar Khmer],” Mr Siphan said, adding that even if one newspaper closes there were always other forums for the opposition to voice criticism of the government, such as over the radio or in the National Assembly.
“It was all voluntary and no one forced him to close or open [the newspaper],” he repeated.