State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. is deeply concerned by "the deterioration in Cambodia's democratic climate" in the past two weeks, as the government of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen has moved to curtail press freedom and civil society groups.
Hun Sen has an uneasy relationship with the U.S., claiming it supports his political opponents. He has held power for three decades, employing authoritarian methods in a nominally democratic framework. His efforts to rein in media and other public watchdogs come ahead of a 2018 national election, in which his ruling party is expected to face a strong opposition challenge.
Nauert urged the government to allow that election to take place in a "free and open environment." She called out Cambodia over an order Wednesday expelling the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and the closure of Cambodia's only opposition-aligned radio station. She also criticized tax investigations against a number of local human rights groups and independent media, including U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, and one of the few English-language newspapers in the country, Cambodia Daily.
Some publications had been faced with unfair and "exorbitant" tax bills, Nauert said. On Tuesday, Hun Sen demanded that Cambodia Daily pay $6.3 million in alleged back taxes and interest by Sept. 4 or face being shut down. Most of the groups targeted have asked for a clarification of their tax bills.
But there is a wrinkle in Washington's advocacy of a free press in the Southeast Asian nation. Hun Sen voiced his support for Trump before last year's U.S. election and has expressed his agreement with the U.S. president's disdain for news media. In February, Hun Sen said both he and Trump view the press as anarchic. And this month, he shared his opinion on CNN — a Trump nemesis — which the Cambodian leader complained had broadcast a misleading program about child prostitution in his country.
"CNN television deserved to be cursed by President Donald Trump," he said. "May I send a message to Donald Trump to praise you because your cursing CNN was fair and right, not wrong." Nauert skirted questions Wednesday about whether Trump's comments on news media might diminish the State Department's own message.
"Our message won't change. We care about freedom of the press," she told reporters. 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.
Two local stations were ordered shut Wednesday. Moha Nokor leased program time to the American 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.
The move against the National Democratic Institute, ordering its foreign staff out of the country within seven days, 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, affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party, promotes democracy and election monitoring worldwide. Its president, Kenneth Wollack, said he was "very saddened and surprised" by the government order 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 The Associated Press in Washington.
Cheang reported from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.