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.