Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government brutally stifles government-critical independent media, most recently with the forced closure of Voice of Democracy, one of the last independent media sources in the country. Ahead of the 2018 elections, Hun Sen ordered the shutdown of The Cambodia Daily and his associates captured the Phnom Penh Post.
In the 2022 Reporters Without Borders Index, Cambodia ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in press freedom. Between 1992 and 2023, 12 journalists were killed in Cambodia, cultivating an environment of fear for the country’s active journalists. With ‘fear of physical violence and legal [repercussions]’, Cambodian journalists are increasingly under attack— in 2020 alone, the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association documented 35 cases of harassment against 72 journalists.
The rationale behind Hun Sen’s crackdown on independent media is for twofold — to ensure the stability of his reign and the continued rule of his family and stifle his opposition especially ahead of the 2023 elections, as he does every election cycle. Hun Sen has drowned out independent media with state-sponsored disinformation while branding independent outlets as ‘propaganda’.
Over the last few years, government-aligned media organisations, such as Fresh News, have emerged in Cambodia. Like many institutions in Cambodia, they are independent and ‘free’ in name only. These organisations emulate traditional free-press agencies in service of the reigning government.
Hun Sen also uses social media as a tool to overwhelm his opposition. Nearly 80 per cent of Cambodians are online, making social media and the internet a new battlefield for the government to wage war on the opposition. Hun Sen was accused of buying Facebook likes for his page to boost his presence on social media. Cambodians rely on social media as a form of information due to the heavy subsidisation of platforms such as Facebook by mobile carriers.
Generally, fake news plays in the government’s favour. Outside of social media, the Hun Sen government employs tried-and-true intimidation tactics to muzzle the independent press and opposition members under the guise of stability and security. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the government used its emergency powers to arrest opposition supporters and government critics on ‘fake news’ charges.
Hun Sen’s designs against the free press in Cambodia are ongoing. In August 2022, the Cambodian People’s Party grouped several media centres under the heading ‘Media Spreads Propaganda’. The government deemed this ‘propaganda’, which is actually real news, too dangerous to leave unattended ahead of the July 2023 election.
In February 2023, Voice of Democracy, one of these last bastions of Cambodian independent media, was shut down by the Cambodian government. What remains of Cambodia’s free press is under grave threat after the closure of The Cambodia Daily, the capture of the Phnom Penh Post and the expulsion of Radio Free Asia.
Hun Sen is targeting what little remains of Cambodia’s press institutions. With firm control and armies of vigilantes or mercenaries ready to take down government critics and ‘cyber troops’ cementing control of Cambodian cyberspace through social media disinformation, Hun Sen leaves no room for opposition.
But Cambodia is not yet lost. Even if Hun Sen succeeds in extinguishing the remainder of media independence and silencing opposition, Cambodians can still access the international information space. Cambodia has yet to finish its ‘Great Firewall’, even if it has already moved to enforce a National Internet Gateway in preparation for such a move. Hun Sen relies on intimidation because the government does not have the resources to shut down the flow of information completely. So long as Cambodians can still travel abroad to see, hear and speak their minds, there is no way to completely extinguish Cambodia’s opposition.
International action will do little to dissuade the Hun Sen regime from stifling dissent. With Chinese aid and assistance untethered from the human rights requirements of the United States and its partners, Hun Sen can maintain the country’s financial well-being while continuing to prop up his regime. Although necessary, further sanctions and restrictions from the United States and its allies to isolate Cambodia will vindicate Hun Sen’s anti-Western narratives.
Hun Sen bets — likely correctly — that the international community will not act against his regime. With its economy secure and foreign investments ongoing, Cambodia is well-positioned to resist pressure from the United States and its allies. As such, there is little that international action can do to pressure Cambodia to reverse course. Condemnation of the Hun Sen regime, while critical, will not alone result in change.
Instead, the United States and its allies must continue to fund and support civil society groups operating within the country. They must continue to support fact-checking outlets and find inventive ways to deliver facts to the Cambodian information space. While disparate civil society groups cannot match the determination and resources of the Hun regime in Cambodia, they can continue their efforts to combat disinformation and government propaganda on social media to continue the spark of democracy among the Cambodian people.
Japhet Quitzon is Program Manager and Research Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Sophal Ear is Associate Professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. He is the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2012) and Viral Sovereignty and the Political Economy of Pandemics: What Explains How Countries Handle Outbreaks (Routledge, 2021). He is also co-author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest is Reshaping the World (Routledge, 2013).
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not represent the views of their respective employers.