The Cambodian government said Tuesday that Radio Free Asia is welcome to reopen its office in the capital Phnom Penh, asserting that no pressure had been applied to RFA to shut down last year and that the congressionally funded U.S.-based international broadcaster had chosen to close on its own.
"There was no pressure," Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng said during a public meeting at the ministry attended by police officers and NGO representatives. "RFA closed the office by itself."
"But now we welcome them back, and the radio station can reestablish its office in Phnom Penh," Sar Kheng said.
RFA closed its nearly 20-year old bureau in the Cambodian capital on Sept. 12, 2017 amid a growing crackdown by Prime Minister Hun's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) on independent media, NGOs, and independent critics ahead of national elections in July of this year.
Cambodian journalists working for RFA had reported over the years on corruption, illegal logging, and forced evictions, among other stories largely ignored by state-controlled media, and authorities had already closed independent radio stations carrying RFA reports, using a pretext of tax and administrative violations.
On Nov. 14, 2017, RFA reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody and charged with "illegally collecting information for a foreign source."
Cambodia's Ministries of Information and Interior had warned prior to their arrests that any journalists still working for RFA after its office in the capital closed would be treated as spies.
The pair were released on bail in September 2018 after spending nine months behind bars on charges of espionage. Multiple local and international rights groups had condemned Hun Sen's government for its treatment of the two reporters during their detention, demanding that they be freed.
Back taxes owed
Meanwhile, Sar Kheng said, the Cambodia Daily-an independent newspaper often critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen that closed in September 2017-can resume operations if the paper pays what he said were taxes still owed to the government.
Sar Kheng said that the paper had evaded payment by closing its operations in the country.
"But if the Cambodia Daily returns and agrees to pay its taxes, they will have full rights to resume operations," he said.
Speaking to RFA's Khmer Service, Cambodian Center for Independent Media director Nop Vy said that instead of simply saying that foreign media outlets can return, Cambodia's government should introduce clear measures guaranteeing press freedoms in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country.
"I would like the government to open more space for everyone to freely express their opinions on how to improve society," he said.
"I would also like to see journalists work independently and in security," he said.
Speaking to RFA, ethnic minority villagers in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces voiced caution over statements Monday by Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs that independent media can resume operations in Cambodia.
One villager named Chan Vorn said that independent media have helped local communities in the past to voice their concerns, and have helped expose government inaction in solving problems.
Promises now by the ruling party to restore press freedoms may be deceptive, though, Chan Vorn said.
"I don't believe the government will do this. They just want to show that they are restoring democracy, though they're not," he said.
Also speaking to RFA, a Mondulkiri villager named Kroeung Tola said he wants press freedoms to be restored so that journalists can travel freely to remote areas to report.
"Independent media help a lot," he said.
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Cambodia 132nd out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, and warned that the Southeast Asian nation is "liable to fall" in the 2018 index.
Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday outlined a plan to "strengthen democracy and political space" in the country following a divisive election that returned Hun Sen and the ruling CPP to power, though observers say the proposal is aimed only at alleviating international threats of trade sanctions over last year's election, which was widely criticized as unfree and unfair.
The statement's provisions include plans to amend the country's political party law to lift a five-year ban on the political activities of 118 senior members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November last year for its role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
Sin Chanpov Rozeth, a popular CNRP commune chief stripped by the ruling party of her post in Banteay Meanchey's O'Char commune, expressed doubt that the government will follow through on its pledge, however.
"If 118 CNRP members are allowed to return to politics, this would mean a reinstatement of the CNRP," she said.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.
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