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Cambodia: Hun Sen holds control of media ahead of election

July 12, 2023

Cambodia's authoritarian prime minister and his party face little opposition in the upcoming general election. Access to free media in the country remains restricted.

Cambodian Premier Hun Sen
Hun Sen has ruled the Southeast Asian country for nearly four decades and is looking to maintain his grip on powerImage: Heng Sinith/AP Photo/picture alliance

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is going into the general election later this month virtually unopposed, after banning the nation's main opposition party and clamping down on independent media outlets.

Hun Sen has ruled the Southeast Asian country for nearly four decades and is looking to maintain his grip on power. He is seeking another five-year term for himself and the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP), which holds all 125 seats in the National Assembly.

Critics say Hun Sen has eliminated any real opposition to ensure that no one challenges his rule. The upcoming election set for July 23 harkens back to Cambodia's much-criticized 2018 vote, during which the now defunct opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) was banned from running.

This time around, the main opposition Candlelight Party was disqualified, ostensibly for not holding the right paperwork to run.

In March, Cambodia jailed former CNRP leader Kem Sokha for 27 years on charges that he conspired with foreign powers to overthrow the government.

The government also recently amended a law that will prevent individuals from running as candidates in future elections if they do not vote.

Does Cambodia have a viable opposition?

Cambodia's control over media

Hun Sen's grip on Cambodian politics also extends to the media. Vanna Hay, a Cambodian political activist based in Japan, told DW that traditional media in Cambodia are mostly pro-government.

"Televisions and radio stations are all organized by pro-government organizations, so there is no trusted information. That's why people tend to use Facebook to get information," he said, adding that the social media platform is also a popular source of information from the political opposition.

Since 2017, Hun Sen has cracked down on independent media in Cambodia, according to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Last year, three Cambodian media outlets were also stripped of their licenses.

Earlier this year, Hun Sen shut down Voice of Democracy, one of Cambodia's last independent media outlets.

The country currently sits at No. 147 out of 180 in RSF's annual World Press Freedom Index.

Social media remains an important alternative for political information. However, there are limitations.

"Despite improved connectivity, many Cambodians still have limited knowledge of the use of both social and regular media and digital literacy," Sopheap Chak, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told DW.

"As the country approaches the general elections, there are several risks of misinformation and the spread of false news among the voters," Chak said. "Therefore, there is a need for credible and trustworthy news websites to provide true information so they can better understand the electoral process."

"Facebook has emerged as one of the most popular social media platforms used by the public to share their ideas and thoughts, access and disseminate critical information," Chak said. "In the past, it has also played an important role during elections, although its impact continues to be narrow in rural areas."

Hun Sen's Facebook controversy

The prime minister has also been an avid Facebook user, spreading his political message to 14 million followers. This is a big number considering 10 million people out of Cambodia's population of nearly 17 million use Facebook, according to a report from data aggregator DataReportal.

In late June, an independent oversight board at Facebook's parent company, Meta, recommended that the prime minister's account be suspended for violating its content policies.

The Oversight Board requested in a report that Hun Sen's Facebook and Instagram accounts be suspended for six months after they concluded that a speech the prime minister made in January had threatened violence against his political opposition.

The 40-minute speech was spoken in Cambodian Khmer language and was uploaded as a video on Facebook. It garnered over 600,000 views before being removed by the tech giant. The oversight board said it was an error to keep the video online, as its "newsworthiness" was outweighed by the potential for causing harm.

"Given Hun Sen's reach on social media, allowing this kind of expression on Facebook enables his threats to spread more broadly. It also results in Meta's platforms contributing to these harms by amplifying the threats and resulting intimidation," the report said.

In response, Hun Sen said he shut down his Facebook account, and would switch to Telegram for livestreaming, which he said was a "better" way to reach the public. He added that he would be launching a TikTok account.

Cambodia's Foreign Ministry also declared 22 members of Meta's oversight board "persona non grata," saying the decision to remove Hun Sen's video and call for the ban "obstructs the freedom of press in Cambodia."

Hun Sen did not follow through on a threat to shut down Facebook in Cambodia.

Cambodia shuts down independent media outlet

Will Hun Sen's Facebook retreat affect election?

Chak said that, although it is "too early" to assess the impact of Hun Sen's retreat from Facebook, the platform retains its importance among Cambodians.

"Many users will continue to interact with Hun Sen's content, for example, on Telegram or Twitter," she said. "It is likely that Facebook will continue to have a strong influence among the Cambodian public, particularly on the verge of the national elections, notwithstanding the dire state of freedom of expression in Cambodia."

Political activist Hay said the absence of Hun Sen's Facebook account would have little effect on the election, but could open the door for opposition politicians to better spread their messages without interference from his supporters.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco