Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the government will revoke the license for media outlet VOD in a Facebook post Sunday evening, after he previously demanded an apology for an article he claimed was inaccurate.
“I decided to finish this issue and allow the Ministry of Information to revoke VOD’s license now and finish all broadcasting by 10 a.m. on February 13, 2023,” he wrote in Khmer. “We shut down all forms of broadcasting…”
Hun Sen had on Saturday ordered VOD Khmer to apologize for and retract a Khmer language article published on February 9. The article had reported that the Prime Minister’s son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, had signed off on an order for $100,000 in aid to earthquake-stricken Turkey in his father’s absence.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan was quoted in the article saying in Khmer “it is not wrong for Hun Manet to play his father’s role in providing aid to Turkey.” But Hun Manet, set to assume leadership of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party once his father retires, denied in a subsequent social media post that he had signed off on the document. Hun Manet demanded an immediate correction and for VOD to provide evidence of his signature on the document authorizing aid.
On February 11, Hun Sen posted on his Facebook page demanding VOD issue a public apology to the government and his son within 72 hours or face the loss of their media license. He shortened the deadline in a subsequent post to 10 a.m. February 13.
The female VOD Khmer reporter who authored the article drawing the ire of Hun Manet and Hun Sen also began to face misogynistic vitriol and sexual harassment on social media.
While staff from Cambodian Center for Independent Media — the NGO which created and runs VOD — met with the Ministry of Information Sunday morning, the situation was not resolved.
VOD Khmer published a follow-up article to note Hun Manet denied signing the document and CCIM sent a letter to Hun Sen earlier on Sunday stating it had “regret” for “confusion” caused by the article.
“VOD always follows the principles of the journalistic code of conduct,” the statement said. “Once again, VOD expresses regret and asks forgiveness if [VOD] has done any unintentional wrong-doing to Samdech Prime Minister.”
By around 7 p.m. on Sunday, Hun Sen issued his Facebook post ordering the Ministry of Information to revoke VOD’s license. He said he had been unsatisfied with VOD’s response to his ultimatum, noting the outlet had declined to apologize and use the words he wanted.
“Is it acceptable to use the words of regret and forgiveness instead of the word apologize?” Hun Sen said in the post. “For me, I cannot accept it.”
“Is the explanation here intended to put the blame on government officials?” he added.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith posted on his Facebook page that other media sites should take notice.
“It is a lesson learned for other media institutions,” he said. “The media institutions that do not agree to publish clarifications, [they] will face the revocation of their licenses.”
Commentators lamenting the potential loss of VOD across social media noted the timing of the shut down, in the run up to the July elections and shortly after top leaders from the opposition Candlelight Party faced lawsuits, arrest and intimidation.
Article 10 of Cambodia’s Press Law states that people who believe they were impacted by a factual error have the right to demand a retraction or reply from a publisher. Under the law, the publisher has seven days to reply. There is also a right to sue for defamation or libel in court.
VOD senior reporter Morm Moniroth said he was very disappointed and hoped a solution might still be reached.
“I’m very sorry that this issue [revoking the license] is happening,” he said. “I hope that the government reconsiders the issue because our reporting did not have any intention to damage any interests.”
“Normally, the role of reporters when they hear anything news, they report to the public,” he said. “We don’t have any bad intentions towards anyone. It is just to provide information to the public.”
He said that if the government really closed his media outlet, he and other staffers will have to look for new jobs but this will be hard for them since there are few remaining independent media outlets.
“Work @VOD_English starts before 10am so I guess I’ll see what happens tmw [tomorrow on February 13],” VOD editor Danielle Keeton-Olsen wrote on Twitter after Hun Sen’s announcement.
Ith Sothoeuth, CCIM Media Director, did not respond to a request for comment.
CCIM founded VOD, originally known as Voice of Democracy, in January 2003 as a radio station. In 2011, CCIM added the VOD Khmer website to provide Khmer language news articles.
In August 2017, the government had previously ordered VOD to stop broadcasting radio programs, along with Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. But CCIM continued to produce audio shows, despite having lost its previous broadcasting partners.
CCIM receives funding from a range of international donors, including the European Union, UNESCO and British and Australian Embassies.
“Please all foreign friends which funded this radio [VOD], transfer funds to your own countries or other countries,” Hun Sen said. “Please all the staff at this radio, find a new job.”