Correction: An earlier version of this article published on March 18, 2023 cited only two of three reasons raised by Information Ministry spokesperson Meas Sophorn in a Telegram interview with CamboJA regarding the Ministry’s decision to revoke the three media licenses. The spokesperson’s third stated reason that was not cited in the earlier version is that “Furthermore, those media outlets disseminated disinformation because those media outlets were asked to help other parties [publish information] and were promised to receive benefits if the settlement was resolved [favorably].”
The Information Ministry revoked the licenses of three media outlets on Thursday after they published reports exposing a senior government official’s role in land fraud.
The Ministry stated that online Khmer language media outlets Federation of Cambodia-ASEAN Journalists, Raksmey Kampong Cham and Dumnong Knong Srok had “committed serious violations of journalistic ethics” and “not followed the instruction of the ministry.”
Chea Lyheang, president and publisher of the Federation of Cambodia-ASEAN Journalists, expressed disappointment that the Ministry revoked his outlet’s license without clear explanation.
“We regret this, please show the exact issue and what mistake we have made,” Lyheang told CamboJA.
Lyheang said the Information Ministry had called him for a meeting in February and requested that he remove articles alleging that government officials had forged documents in a land dispute and, in another case, involved in the extortion of poor families.
One report, published in all three outlets, revealed that senior ruling CPP National Assembly member Sar Chamrong, former deputy governor of Banteay Meanchey, allegedly forged documents to gain more than 60 hectares of land in Banteay Meanchey.
“After seeing forged documents and thumb prints, I have published this information and Sar Chamrong has complained to the Information Ministry,” Lyheang said.
Chamrong heads the National Assembly’s Commission on Human Rights, Complaints and Investigations. In February 2020, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith led a delegation to pay respects at the funeral of Chamrong’s mother.
Chamrong could not be reached for comment by CamboJA.
The Information Ministry claimed the articles damaged the honor of the officials named in the report, according to Lyheang.
“I replied that I cannot remove the information because it is real information, especially a lie to Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Lyheang said.
Another article published in the three outlets revealed that a Takeo provincial deputy prosecutor had seized property from three families who bought it from Ratanakiri province and demanded they pay him money to get it back.
Chea Saren, publisher of Dumnong Knong Srok, published the same reports into land disputes and land fraud this year, including in a video segment receiving more than 169,000 views on Facebook. He said the Information Ministry requested he remove the articles, which he refused to do.
“They [Information Ministry] had requested to remove those two articles but I didn’t follow [their request] because we have enough documents and are interviewing villagers,” he said. “We have published the real information of villagers, which might have impacted other people’s interests.”
Information Ministry spokesperson Meas Sophorn denied the Ministry had asked the media outlets to remove articles.
“It isn’t true,” Sophorn said. “The decision to revoke licenses came because those media outlets have broadcasted disinformation with no verification of sources from relevant parties related to information they have published, and they didn’t make a correction to disinformation they had published.”
“Furthermore, those media outlets disseminated disinformation because those media outlets were asked to help other parties [publish information] and were promised to receive benefits if the settlement was resolved [favorably],” he added.
The land dispute in Banteay Meanchey province has been closed with a final verdict from all levels of the court, the spokesperson said. This act is a serious violation of professional ethics of journalism as outlined the Press Law of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the spokesperson claimed.
The Press Law states that anybody who believes they have been subject to a false report damaging them may file a civil suit to resolve the matter in court.
“For me, I want to see a thorough investigation of the cases before closing [the publications],” said Nop Vy, executive director of Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA).
Press freedom in Cambodia has worsened as a result of the closure of these outlets, he said.
“From my perspective, if [the closure of media outlets] continues, it will not be a good image for our society, it could have a lot of impacts, especially impacting the push for transparency and [ability] to root out corruption in our society,” Vy said.
The government has previously censored the media for reporting information that it deems to damage the reputation of officials.
In February, the government shut down independent media VOD and blocked access to its website for a report alleging the Prime Minister’s son Hun Manet had signed a document in place of his father to provide aid to Turkey.
“It is a lesson learned for other media institutions,” Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said on his Facebook page after the announcement of VOD’s closure. “The media institutions that do not agree to publish clarifications, [they] will face the revocation of their licenses.”
The revocation of VOD’s license was condemned by a range of foreign embassies, the United Nations and human rights groups. But Prime Minister Hun Sen brushed off those concerns and said VOD’s shut down strengthened the Kingdom’s journalism by punishing what he claimed to be unprofessional reporting.
Following the loss of its license, outlet Dumnong Knong Srok posted a goodbye to followers on its Facebook page.
“Farewell to the professional journalists all over the Kingdom of Cambodia who are in love with the field of journalism,” Dumnong Knong Srok said in a Friday post. “Wish them good health and continue to spread true information to the society for the motherland.”