Voice of Democracy is shut down by Cambodian leader Hun Sen

After the ASEAN summit, on November 13, 2022, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen addresses the media. Cindy Liu/REUTERS

Just months before Cambodia's election, Hun Sen, the country's leader, shut down one of the last independent media outlets.

Hun Sen claimed in a Facebook post on Sunday that a report from VOD, or the Voice of Democracy, last week "hurt" the reputation of his government.

The group's license was revoked on Monday because he wouldn't accept their apology.

Advocates claim that the loss of VOD is a serious setback for the country's weak press.

The news organization's editors told the BBC that on Monday morning, police had come to their office in Phnom Penh with a warrant revoked their operating license.

Staff confirmed that some internet service providers have also blocked access to older stories on VOD's English and Khmer websites.

Ananth Baliga, an associate editor, told the BBC on Monday that "people are shocked and still trying to process this.". The time between when the story was published and the license suspension was extremely accelerated. ".

Hun Sen announced his decision to close VOD on Sunday after the publication of a story about Cambodia's aid efforts in the wake of the earthquake in Turkey. According to the report from 9 February, Hun Manet, his eldest son, approved a $100,000 (£83,000) package.

The deputy commander-in-chief of the Cambodian army is Hun Manet, but only the prime minister can sign off on aid deliveries from abroad. Hun Sen demanded an apology, claiming that the report had hurt his government's reputation.

In a statement, the news outlet's non-governmental operator, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), apologized for any confusion caused by the fact that a government spokesman was used in the report.

However, Hun Sen deemed the response to be "inacceptable.". He also instructed foreign donors to return their contributions to the media outlet and ordered its closure at 10:00 local time on Monday (03:00 GMT).

Reporters Without Borders and Transparency International are two rights and press freedom organizations that have donated money to the CCIM.

Recent stories had ground-breaking coverage on a slavery scam, and VOD published and broadcast in both Khmer and English.

According to its website, it was charged with the mission of "promot[ing] democratic governance, human rights, the development of all economic sectors, and an independent and sustainable environment for media.".

After a significant crackdown on free speech in 2017 and 2018, many observers in Cambodia claimed that this news organization was the main one still operating there that produced hard-hitting journalism.

The closure of VOD occurs just a few months before the country's July election, which has long been dominated by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party.

With his reign over Cambodia beginning in 1985, Hun Sen, 70, is one of the most long-reigning autocrats in history. In what is essentially a one-party state, he is currently serving his sixth term as prime minister and has recently sent a number of opposition politicians to prison or exile.

According to Josef Benedict, a researcher with the international civil society organization CIVICUS, the closure of VOD was a result of ongoing attacks on press freedom and civic space in Cambodia.

In September 2017, the government ordered the Cambodia Daily newspaper to pay a $6.3m (£4.9m) tax bill or face closure.

According to associate editor Mr. Baliga, given the political climate, the shutdown of VOD was all but "inevitable.".

The journalist said, "We hope some resolution can come out of this so we can continue doing the journalism of accountability, the journalism that is critical to Cambodia in a media environment where there is not much of that."

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