The “façade of media freedom” in the Kingdom “collapsed” last year, with journalists reporting a sharp drop in their hopes for independent press, according to the results of a new survey launched yesterday.
The Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) study surveyed 75 journalists from 41 local media outlets last November. Only 11 percent of surveyed journalists said Cambodian was heading “in the right direction”, a steep decline from the 71 percent reported in 2015.
The report comes in the wake a widespread media crackdown that saw three journalists jailed on suspicion of “espionage” and the closure of several independent news outlets such as the Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia.
A whopping 92 percent of reporters surveyed believed those shutdowns were “primarily political”, while 83 percent said media freedom had decreased in 2017. “Many commented that this was so obvious as to make the question ridiculous,” the report read.
Indeed, anonymous quotations in the report detail the realities journalists in Cambodia face. “The authorities have warned us: don’t be so brave,” one said.
The report ranked the Daily, The Phnom Penh Post and Voice of America the most independent media outlets in that order. Between the Daily’s closure and the sharp curtailment of VOA’s access to airwaves, among other government actions, four of the top six outlets were characterised as having been “severely disrupted” in 2017.
Independently owned government mouthpiece Fresh News received the worst independence ranking, just two tenths of a point off of the lowest possible score. In fact, it was ranked below actual state-run outlets, like AKP and the Interior Ministry’s Nice TV, as well as Bayon TV, run by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana.
The majority of respondents said they could not do their work without fear of interference or repercussions, a rise on previous years, and physical and verbal attacks also increased.
Meanwhile, almost half of the participants saw “government influence and control” as their biggest challenge.
The findings rang true for the Daily’s deputy publisher, Deborah Krisher-Steele, who was charged with defamation after her publication was shut down. “I am with the majority,” she said.
But Huy Vannak, director of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia and an Interior Ministry official, questioned CCIM’s findings, especially its concept of “independent media”.
“A media outlet cannot be really independent . . . unless its journalists stop receiving salaries … or it stops receiving fees from advertisers,” he said, claiming last year’s closures of media outlets were not linked to politics, but “rooted in their own activities”.
Chhay Sophal, of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, cast doubt on the study’s methodology, saying “the finding is not representative”. The report itself acknowledged it was not a “rigorous random sampling”, although it aimed to capture a broad range of voices.
Unlike nearly all journalists surveyed, Sophal claimed local media were on the right path. “The loss of some media outlets does not mean there is less freedom.”
Additional reporting by Erin Handley