PHNOM PENH – Two independent Cambodian radio stations that allowed rare criticism of the government said Wednesday they are being forced to shut down, further limiting opportunities for political activity and expression ahead of next year's general election.The radio stations announced the closures the same day the foreign ministry ordered foreign staff members of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute to leave the country within a week and halt operations. The government accused the group, which receives U.S. government support, of violating laws on non-governmental organizations and taxes.The institute, affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party, promotes democracy and election monitoring worldwide.
The moves appeared to be part of a concerted effort to rein in media and other public watchdogs ahead of the 2018 polls, in which the ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to face a strong challenge.Hun Sen has held power for three decades, employing authoritarian methods in a nominally democratic framework. After being shocked by the strong challenge he faced in 2013's general election, he moved to undermine the opposition, using pliant courts and a rubber-stamp legislature to neutralize opposition leaders with a series of politically motivated lawsuits and criminal charges. Still, the opposition made gains in nationwide local elections this past June.The move against the National Democratic Institute was foreshadowed last week by the appearance of a mysterious Facebook page that purported to display evidence that the U.S. group was conspiring with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party against the government.The institute's president, Kenneth Wollack, said he was "very saddened and surprised" by the government order to close and urged it to reconsider.He said NDI had been working in Cambodia for 25 years to build the capacity of parties across the political spectrum and had adhered to registration laws and operated transparently. Cambodia's ruling party has participated in many of its activities, as well as the opposition."We have always responded to requests and needs from the parties themselves. If we have conspired with the opposition, we have conspired with the ruling party as well," Wollack told a news agency in Washington.In recent weeks the government has announced a crackdown on organizations it says are delinquent in paying taxes, including foreign and local media and civil society organizations.On Tuesday, Hun Sen demanded that The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper, pay $6.3 million in alleged back taxes and interest by Sept. 4 or face being shut down. Two U.S. government-funded radio stations, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, have also been warned they owe back taxes, as have a number of local human rights groups. Most of the groups have asked for a clarification of their tax bills.Most Cambodian media, especially TV, are owned by the government or by businesses with close connections to the authorities. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are among the few platforms where government critics have been able to reach a large audience. They have both leased broadcast time from local radio stations.One of the two local stations ordered shut Wednesday, Moha Nokor, leased program time to the U.S. broadcasters and was also a rare outlet for the opposition. It received a letter from Information Minister Khieu Kanharith canceling its authorization to operate on the basis that it had violated the authorization and the law.Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the station's main backer, confirmed the government's order."I cannot guarantee whether or not the upcoming general election in 2018 will be free and fair," he said.The manager of Voice of Democracy, primarily an online radio station that bought time on a separate broadcasting station, said that station's owner told him he could no longer lease time because of technical and administrative issues.The manager, Pa Nguon Tieng, said the Voice of Democracy was given seed money by the U.S. government and has since received funds from the European Union and the Danish and Swedish governments.