Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) has threatened legal action against independent news outlet Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA) for a report that allegedly besmirched the reputation of government officials, including agriculture Minister Dith Tina.
CamboJA reported the assault on farmer entrepreneur Ny Nak and his wife Sok Synet who were attacked by eight helmet-wearing, baton-wielding motorbike drivers near the capital Phnom Penh on September 12.
Ny Nak is a fertilizer producer and seller of fruit trees who spent 18 months in jail for criticizing the government’s restrictive COVID-19 policies. After his release last June, he continued to criticize government programs especially those related to agriculture through his Facebook page which has more than 400,000 followers. His recent posts lambasted labor and agriculture officials for failing to uplift the conditions of Cambodian workers and farmers. He also mentioned that he declined the invitation to join the ruling party when he was visited by some officials who encouraged him to stop attacking the government.
Human Rights Watch noted that the manner of attack against Ny Nak is similar to the cases of opposition members who were also assaulted by baton-wielding riders this year. It also quoted Ny Nak who rejected the initial conclusion of authorities that the attack could be a case of robbery. “I believe the men who beat me were trying to kill me for being critical of the government,” Ny Nak said.
Am Sam Ath, the head of local rights group Licadho, also highlighted the attacks against opposition members as he urged authorities to quickly probe the assault on Ny Nak:
So far, there are many opposition party activists who have been attacked, but no suspects have been apprehended. To avoid criticism of restrictions on freedom of speech or accusations of [being behind] politically motivated assaults, authorities must investigate the case.
On September 15, MAFF published a statement on its Facebook page dismissing the “baseless claims and accusations” of Ny Nak while castigating CamboJA for publishing a report with “serious breaches of journalistic ethics.”
The article speculates that the attack on Ny Nak was politically motivated solely based on his recent baseless posts criticizing government officials/institutions, and speculations from so-called rights groups. However, there is no evidence to support this claim.
MAFF urged CamboJA to “rectify” the report as it threatened legal action against the news company.
MAFF encourages CambojaNews to take steps to ensure that such malicious intentions and defamatory speculations do not recur in the future which would result in legal actions that could lead to the same outcome of the then VOD.
VOD or Voice of Democracy is an independent media outlet whose license was revoked early this year by former Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The Ministry of Agriculture threatens @cambojanews with the “same outcome” as that of @VOD_English. The ministry claims a story about an activist being beaten bloody was in breach of journalistic ethics.
The spox of the ministry is a former journalist.
So much for “new blood.” pic.twitter.com/t0zTayzvgD
— Ananth Baliga (@antbaliga) September 18, 2023
CamboJA updated its report by removing the name of the Agriculture Minister and correcting some names in the article.
State of media freedom
Journalist Sebastian Strangio,who is the Southeast Asia editor at “The Diplomat”, wrote that the statement of the ministry is an indication of the state of press freedom remaining unchanged under the new government:
MAFF’s complaint reflects the familiar political rules under which critical reporting is viewed as an attack on the reputation and honor of government officials, as well as a possible sign of nefarious oppositional intentions. In this system, journalists are expected to conform to the contours of power rather than challenging them.
The fact that individual ministries and politicians feel emboldened to threaten the closure of a media outlet publishing critical reports offers an early sign that Hun Manet’s administration will have little more tolerance for adversarial reporting than did his father’s.
Prime Minister Hun Manet is the son of Hun Sen who rose to power in 1985. Hun Sen is accused of masterminding the disqualification of opposition parties which paved the way for the easy election victory of his party and his son. Aside from the crackdown on independent press, the government under Hun Sen is also being held to account by human rights groups for its systematic attack on the people’s civil liberties.
Cambodia ranks 147th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2023 World Press Freedom Index.