Why IFJ is monitoring Cambodia’s media

In January 2020, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen celebrated his 35th year in power, making him Asia’s longest-serving leader. At a meeting with local journalists on January 14, 2020, he boldly declared that he had no intention of stepping down and would be prime minister for the next 10 years.

As a constitutional monarchy, Cambodia’s constitution proclaims the country a liberal, multiparty democracy. However, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) are intent on securing leadership by undermining political opposition, civil society groups and the independent media. 

Hun Sen entered the cabinet as a foreign minister for the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, a new government installed by Vietnam, in 1979. In 1985, when he was 32 years old he was unanimously elected as prime minister by the National Assembly to replace Chan Sy, who passed away while in office in December 1984.

In 1991, the four warring factions, including CPP agreed to sign the Paris Peace Accords which consisted of political settlements to end the conflict in the country. Article 15 in the agreement requires all sides to observe and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. As part of the Paris Peace Accords, free and fair elections were overseen by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in May 1993. While Hun Sen lost the elections, he refused to accept the results. In a fragile power sharing arrangement, Hun Sen shared power with his political rival, the Funcinpec Party's Prince Norodom Ranariddh. In July 1997, Hun Sen staged a military coup, ousted his co-prime minister and killed Prince’s military and political allies.

While Hun Sen boasts about the Cambodia’s democratic credentials, the reality tells a different story. He has told journalists and civil society groups to hold the government to account by reporting on corruption and injustice, yet crackdowns on freedom of expression and punishes those critical of the government.



A Cambodian staff (C) of Radio France Internationale (RFI) in Khmer Service, works during the Inauguration of Radio France Internationale (RFI) in Khmer Service station in Phnom Penh on June 20, 2013. Credit: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP


The steep decline of Cambodia’s democracy intensified in the lead up to the 2018 election. There has been increasing pressure on independent media following the closure of numerous independent news outlets.

The politicised judiciary has enabled abuses of power by the government, and the introduction of restrictive legislations has raised concerns. These have included amendments to articles 34 and 42 of Cambodia’s Constitution to require that every Cambodian “defend the motherland” and empower the government to take action against political parties if they do not “place the country and nation’s interest first.” And Cambodia’s lèse-majesté law which was adopted by parliament in February 2018 This law requires political parties as well as Khmer citizens to “primarily uphold the national interest. This law, with a punishment of up to five years in prison and a US$2,000 fine, has since been used to silence government critics and restrict press freedom.

Freedom of expression has been further curtailed, as the government has extended its power to monitor and control online news content, including websites and social media. This aims to obstruct and prevent the publication of content that the government says is “intended to create turmoil and to undermine national defence, national security, relations with other countries, the economy, public order and nation’s cultural”.

The broad term “fake news” has been used to suppress government critics. A proposed Fake News Law will tackle articles that cause “hostility” or “anger” or writing that “makes the problem become worse”.  But it appears the law is more geared towards punishing journalists who expose injustice and corruption in Cambodian society.  There are also concerns with access to information. Officials are able to reject requests for information that may harm national security. This has led to a refusal to provide information, hampering the ability of journalists to reporting freely, safely and independently.

With a worrying decline in press freedom and democratic rights in Cambodia, the IFJ and its affiliate in Cambodia will continue on its mission to promote press freedom and the people’s right to know.

Journalism under threat

Shrinking media space

Cambodia has a vast and fragmented media space. Initially transforming in the years after the civil war, recent developments have seen a deterioration of hard fought media freedoms.

The end of the long civil war saw the emergence of democratic elections, the arrival United Nations peacekeepers and the rise of an independent media, with the establishment of foreign media outlets, in Cambodia.

The founding of Radio UN Transnational Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in February 1992 heralded a new era of media freedom. With its first broadcast in November 1992, UNTAC launched a public information campaign to encourage people to vote and exercise their democratic rights.

In 1995, Cambodia passed a new Press Law amid pressure from the international community to replace the repressive press law from the 1980s. The new Press Law ostensibly gave the appearance of protecting an open and vibrant media, it contained uncertainties and ambiguities which have been used by those in power to restrict freedom.  

Numerous other threats to press freedom have also come from a raft of new laws and amendments, introduced to silence free speech and prevent journalists from doing their jobs. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has called for urgent changes to the Cambodian Press Law to bring it into line with current global press standards to guarantee freedom of the press and media in Cambodia.

Threats to media freedoms and attempts to silence journalists became increasingly intense during 2017-2018. The government suppressed the critical voices by closing down independent news outlets. In 2017, independent radio stations, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Cambodia Daily newspaper were shutdown. In 2018, the Phnom Penh Post was sold to the pro-government owners, after being threatened with a massive tax bill. By the end of 2018, Cambodia no longer had any local independent newspapers or radio and TV channels. The closure of independent media outlets succeeded in silencing the objective voices, critical of the government.

High levels of media ownership concentration in the hands of Cambodia’s elite, including ruling party officials, has also hampered media freedom. The South East Asia Media Freedom Report 2019 stated that media ownership was a primary reason for the decline of free press in Cambodia.

Bayon TV, for example, is owned by the prime minister’s daughter, Hun Mana. Businessmen with  strong political connections, such as Kith Meng and Ly Yong Phat, have also founded media companies. Another media outlet, The Khmer Times is owned and published by a Malaysian T. Mohan, who is close to the authorities and holds an editorial line favourable to the government.

The dismantling of press freedom has also seen a reduction in the number of international journalists. The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia said the pool of foreign journalists working in Cambodia shrank from about 150 in mid-2017 to between 15 and 30 in 2018. Attempts to silence the media have also lead to a decline in independent Khmer language media reporting, with the closure of local radio stations. With the national elections in July 2018, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) intensified its assault on the independent media.

A proliferation of digital news outlets was positive news for the free flow of information. But social media networks now face increased government surveillance and intervention. In May 2018, the government issued a national decree allowing the Ministries of Interior, Information, and Posts and Telecommunications to take down content on social media outlets and websites that the government deems to be “incitement, breaking solidarity, discrimination and wilfully creating turmoil that undermines national security, public interest and social order.”

Hopes for improving media freedom come from several organisations, such as Cambodian Center for Independent Media, which publishes Voice of Democracy both in Khmer and English, as well as the announcement of new journalist’s organisation including Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA). The goal of the organisation is to assist independent journalists and promote press freedom.


Tracking press freedom’s descent

IFJ-SEAJU research and reporting

Since 2018, IFJ and the South East Asia Journalist Unions (SEAJU) have documented and researched media freedom, safety, impunity and working conditions of journalists in South East Asia.

Holding the Line: A Report into Impunity, Journalist Safety and Working Conditions, surveyed journalists across the region, including Cambodia, to detail the issues and challenges that imperil press freedom in the region. Cambodia’s national research found that 50 per cent of journalists said the media situation in Cambodia had “seriously declined” and 29 per cent said it had continued to “worsen”. Thirty-three per cent of respondents said the biggest threat to their work was arrest and 81 per cent felt their work was a security concern. Almost a quarter of all journalists said they had been sacked, demoted or reprimanded as a result of their critical journalism.

The two IFJ SEAJU reports can be found below.




Take action!

Help us strengthen media monitoring in Cambodia

Cambodia’s media freedoms are under attack, freedom of expression is dwindling and independent journalism needs to be defended and protected. Help support IFJ monitoring in Cambodia by alerting us to media freedom issues and violations of journalists rights. This helps put these violations in the international spotlight.

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