A “coordinated campaign of repression against the opposition and media” is intensifying in Cambodia, according to Amnesty International, with the government forcing the closure of popular English language newspaper The Cambodia Daily and 19 independent radio stations, and arresting the leader of the country’s main opposition party.
President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha was taken from his home by more than 100 police on Sunday night, accused of involvement in a US conspiracy to overthrow the government, based on a speech he gave to supporters in Australia in 2013.
“This is a disturbing day for freedom of expression in Cambodia," said James Gomez, Amnesty's Director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, of The Daily's closure. "It is chilling how ruthlessly and quickly the authorities have been able to move to shut down one of the country’s few independent voices in the media”.
The Cambodia Daily, which was founded in 1993 by American journalist Bernard Krisher, produced its final edition reporting Kem Sokha's arrest on Sunday night as the deadline for payment of a $US 6.1 million tax bill imposed by the government last month loomed.
Tributes flowed in the media and on social media for the paper, which was described as having a disproportionate influence for its small circulation, with a readership ranging from ambassadors to rural schoolchildren who relied on its uncensored reporting on issues including official corruption, illegal logging and conflicts over land.
The Daily was credited by supporters and former staff with training many local and international journalists who have gone on to work with major news agencies.
In the same week that news of the paper's tax bill broke, the Ministry of Information shut down 19 radio stations that aired programs produced by Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and the CNRP.
Amnesty International called for international pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen to stop the "alarming downward spiral" in rights and freedoms in Cambodia.
CRNP deputy leader Mu Sochua appealed to international donors to take a stand on Hun Sen's "false democracy" and demand Kem Sokha's immediate and unconditional release.
A 3 September statement from the US State Department referred to “a number of troubling recent steps, including the imposition of unprecedented restrictions on independent media and civil society” in Cambodia which “raise serious questions about the government's ability to organize credible national elections in 2018 which produce an outcome that enjoys democratic legitimacy”.
The Australian Embassy in Cambodia released a statement
expressing concern about developments in the country and urging authorities "to take all necessary steps to maintain an open democratic space in which all voices can be heard".