vod shut down cambodia
Authorities delivered a letter to VOD on Monday morning saying their media license had been revoked. Photos: Hean Rangsey/VOD

Strongman Ruler Shuts Down News Outlet For ‘Attack’ on His Son

Cambodian leader Hun Sen told the journalists to “find a job elsewhere” for reporting that his son had approved $100,000 in humanitarian aid to Turkey.

In a potentially fatal blow to press freedom in Cambodia, long-ruling prime minister Hun Sen has ordered the shutdown of one of the country’s last independent local news outlets, claiming it “attacked” his family by publishing a story alleging his son approved humanitarian aid to Turkey on his behalf.

The Voice of Democracy (VOD) no longer has a licence to publish or broadcast as of 10AM Cambodian time on Monday, Feb. 13th, according to a statement posted on Hun Sen’s Facebook page on Sunday night. The prime minister encouraged foreign donors to withdraw funding from the organisation, and told staff working at VOD to “Find a job elsewhere.”


“Commentators tried to attack me and my son Hun Manet,” Hun Sen wrote in the statement, claiming a story published by VOD hurt the “dignity and reputation” of the Cambodian government by suggesting that his son, deputy commander of Cambodia’s armed forces, had signed an agreement to provide $100,000 in aid to Turkey because Hun Sen was “too busy.” 

As only the prime minister has the authority to sign such agreements, Hun Manet’s actions would have been a breach of Cambodia’s constitution. However, information in the VOD story, which was written in Khmer, was supported by direct quotes provided by government spokesperson Phay Siphan. 

Hun Sen initially gave VOD 72 hours, starting on Saturday, to publicly apologise to both the government and Hun Manet for the report, which was published on Feb. 9th. On Sunday afternoon he changed that deadline to 24 hours, prompting VOD to write him a letter that expressed “regret” about confusion caused by the article and asked for his tolerance.

The prime minister rejected the letter, claiming that an expression of regret did not constitute an apology and instead seemed to try and “pin the blame on government officials.”

“Are the words ‘regret’ and ‘tolerance’ [used in VOD’s letter] interchangeable with ‘apology’?” Hun Sen said, in his statement announcing the shutdown. “I cannot accept it.”

Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, addressing reporters on Monday morning. Photos: Hean Rangsey/VOD​

Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, addressing reporters on Monday morning. Photos: Hean Rangsey/VOD​

Experts and journalists have lamented the shutdown of VOD, a non-profit Khmer and English outlet reporting under the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, as yet another blow to press freedom. The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia called the move the most “objectively politically motivated attack on what remains of the free press in Cambodia.” 

“VOD shone lights in some of Cambodia’s darker spots,” they told VICE World News. “Many of those celebrating VOD’s demise might not be fully aware that they’re cheering for a Cambodia that is less informed, less aware of these issues and less able to deal with them.”

The shutdown makes VOD the latest casualty of a years-long crackdown against free press in Cambodia, where attacks on the media have been described by the UN Human Rights Office as a “threat to democracy.” 

In August 2017, authorities ordered the closure of 32 radio stations across the nation that had been critical of the Cambodian government, including Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA). The Cambodia Daily, once a leading newspaper in the region known for its investigative journalism, was also ordered to close, with the government citing an unpaid tax bill. In 2018, another leading independent newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, was sold to a Malaysian businessman with links to high-ranking Cambodian officials, including Hun Sen.


“This is déjà vu for reporters who worked through the closure of the Cambodia Daily and the zombification of the Phnom Penh Post,” said the OPCC. “Shuttering VOD impoverishes an already malnourished information ecosystem and risks Cambodia becoming a blackhole of information like Laos.” 

With VOD’s dissolution, left behind is an increasingly barren media landscape in Cambodia, populated by pro-government outlets and a dwindling number of independent domestic agencies under growing scrutiny from authorities.

A letter from Cambodian authorities revoking VOD's media license. Photos: Hean Rangsey/VOD​

A letter from Cambodian authorities revoking VOD's media license. Photos: Hean Rangsey/VOD​

“VOD has been one of the strongest voices and an invaluable source of critical reporting in recent years,” Naly Pilorge, outreach director at local human rights organisation LICADHO, told VICE World News. “If VOD is permanently shut, it will leave a gaping hole in Cambodia’s media landscape, which has already been decimated by systematic government attacks.” 

Amnesty International called the move a “blatant attempt to slam the door on what’s left of independent media in the country“ and “a clear warning to other critical voices.” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, called the decision “flimsy and absurd” in a public statement, adding that there’s “no excuse for this outrageous and ridiculous order to shut them down based on the silliest of rationales about who signed a government document to give aid to Turkey.” 


The swift and decisive action from the government comes at a time of growing scrutiny over Hun Manet’s role in Cambodian politics. In December 2021, Hun Sen was criticised for nepotism and accused of creating a political dynasty after he officially backed his son to succeed him as premier—a position he has held since 1985 as the world’s longest serving prime minister. 

Adding to the Cambodian government’s increased sensitivity over dissent is the upcoming general election, set to be held in June. It’s the first national election since 2018, a contest dismissed as a “sham” after the country’s only viable opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved shortly before. 

Though the CPP looks set to stroll to victory once more, the party is tightening its grip on dissent ahead of the June polls. VOD has been a consistent source of scrutiny, not least in their coverage of human trafficking operations booming within Cambodia—an issue that has caused the CPP significant reputational damage at home and abroad. 


Despite the warning signs, Danielle Keeton-Olsen, a reporter with VOD-English, who was also with the Cambodia Daily when it was shuttered in 2017, said those at the outlet were “taken by surprise” by how swiftly things unfolded.  

“We didn't see this coming at all,” she told VICE World News. “We did have some concerns about our ability to report going into the election, but the circumstances around this shocked everyone.” She added that authorities delivered a letter confirming the order to the VOD office on Monday morning, and that the website had been blocked by Cambodian internet service providers.   

Mech Dara, another VOD reporter, who has previously worked at both The Cambodian Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, told VICE World News that while he doesn’t fully understand the government’s motivations for the closure, he believes the organisation may have attracted their attention through “controversial” stories on issues of labour, deforestation, and human rights.

“We have tried to bring and publish the facts for the reader to see what’s happening,” he said. “We have seen the media in the past play a very key role for the public to understand the whole situation [and] to make the right decision.”

Without a free and open media, he added, there is no one to hold people in positions of power accountable, or expose corruption—an issue for which Cambodia has consistently ranked the worst in Southeast Asia in annual indexes. 

“The eyes of the public are closed, so who can hold anyone who does the wrong thing accountable? It will be difficult to know the truth now, anything can happen,” he said. “We cannot do our work now. Someone asked me, ‘what’s next?’ I really don’t know.”

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