Fresh News and the Future of the Fourth Estate in Cambodia
When leading Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested shortly after midnight in September 2017, most media outlets were taken by surprise. Only Fresh News, a digital news provider with close ties to the government, was on hand to livestream the chaotic scenes which saw Sokha arrested at his home in an operation involving 100 armed police officers.
The arrest marked the culmination of a months-long smear campaign by Fresh News against Sokha, president of the now dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Fresh News had linked Sokha to an American-backed conspiracy to overthrow prime minister Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party, which has led the country for more than three decades.
After Sokha was arrested, Fresh News continued its critical coverage with articles like “Why was Kem Sokha arrested? Listen to his confession of treason!” The story contained a link to a 2013 video of Sokha thanking the US for political support and detailing strategies for democratic change. The government claimed Sokha’s comments qualified as a “red-handed” crime, allowing Sokha to be stripped of his parliamentary immunity.
The rise to prominence of Fresh News as a key player in Cambodia’s authoritarian landscape has arrived amidst an unprecedented crackdown on free press and civil society which has reduced the country’s once-robust media to rubble. The fiercely critical Cambodia Daily was shut down in 2017 over a disputed tax bill, publishing its final edition the day of Sokha’s arrest.
Then, last year, Cambodia’s oldest independent newspaper—the Phnom Penh Post—was bought by new owners with close ties to the government, who have enforced strict censorship guidelines. A slew of independent radio stations have also been shuttered, silencing crucial voices and forcing Radio Free Asia to abandon its operations in the country.
The government’s appreciation of the kind of journalism practiced by Fresh News appears to be considerable—Hun Sen has compared Fresh News to news organizations like Reuters.
Throughout the crackdown on traditional media, the digital-first Fresh News has become one of Hun Sen’s most useful instruments with an outsized influence over political misinformation and propaganda. Launched in 2014 with 20 journalists and described as a “bludgeon” by then-independent newspaper the Phnom Penh Post, Fresh News is now the country’s third most visited local site and has led the war against critics of the Cambodian government by spreading unfounded conspiracy theories, leaking private phone calls between opposition politicians, and even helping to give shape to anti-democratic policies.
The media organization, which now employs 200 people across its online, television, radio, Facebook and YouTube platforms, is regularly granted exclusive interviews with high-ranking government officials, including Hun Sen, who almost never give interviews to other outlets. In Khmer, English, and Chinese, Fresh News has become the state’s third arm in an ongoing campaign of media repression.
The government’s appreciation of the kind of journalism practiced by Fresh News appears to be considerable—Hun Sen has compared Fresh News to news organizations like Reuters. “Fresh News now is not only being watched in the country but also abroad, and we also have a quick information system that is no worse than AFP, UPI, AP or Reuters,” he said in a speech in September 2017, days after Sokha’s arrest.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told the Phnom Penh Post that Fresh News is “a space for the government to share the news”, and said that the platform receives its information directly from government sources.
The success of Fresh News can also be viewed in the light of criticism of investigative journalism in a number of other countries across the world. Just as President Donald Trump has described CNN as “fake news” while giving access to broadcasters like Fox News, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has called news website Rappler Inc. a “fake news outlet”, Hun Sen has asked local and international journalists to tackle “fake news” under the pretext of preserving national security. “Even the countries that claim to respect freedom of speech are concerned about cybercrimes,” he said recently. “Some countries which are regarded as [fathers of democracy] have laws to prevent and punish fake news [perpetrators].”
Exclusives and Leaks
Pro-government since its launch, Fresh News took on a more active role in the summer of 2017, seemingly anticipating or even precipitating the government’s shift towards authoritarianism. Prior to Sokha’s arrest, the government shut down the National Democratic Institute, a US-funded pro-democracy organization that Fresh News claimed was also part of the plot to initiate a “color revolution” to topple the government like those in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring. NDI was closed and its three foreign staff expelled, a decision that the government justified with materials leaked to Fresh News.
In January, three high-profile Cambodian activists were charged with “breach of trust” in a case widely seen as politically motivated. The men first found out about the charges against them when the court documents were published on Fresh News.
The documents originated from a meeting between NDI and the CNRP during which the groups discussed election campaign strategies. In its defense, NDI claimed they held similar training sessions with multiple parties, including Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Further evidence of Fresh News’s close ties with the government emerged when the platform released photographs of all three foreign NDI staff, taken during their exit from Cambodia at Phnom Penh International Airport. USAID released a statement condemning the “deeply disappointing” decision, while a number of US Senators, including John McCain, also denounced the move.
The document leak was part of a pattern. In contrast to other Cambodian media, Fresh News benefits from exclusive and regular access to government documents, including court summonses and arrest warrants which are made available to the public on the platform. In January, three high-profile Cambodian activists were charged with “breach of trust” in a case widely seen as politically motivated. The men first found out about the charges against them when the court documents were published on Fresh News.
Leaks broadcast by Fresh News have also created far-reaching legal troubles for critics. Former deputy Prime Minister for the Funcinpec party, Lu Lay Sreng, had the audio recording of a private phone call distributed by Fresh News in October 2017. During the call, Lay Sreng referred to the Cambodian king Norodom Sihamoni as a “castrated chicken” for not doing more to preserve democracy. Sreng also accused his former party of collaborating with the government to destroy the CNRP.
After Fresh News leaked the call, Lay Sreng was sued for defamation by Hun Sen and Funcinpec, despite the fact that the comments were made in a private conversation. Lay Sreng, now in his 80s, fled to the US immediately following the leak. No investigation has been opened into who illegally recorded and leaked the conversation.
Separately from conspiracies and leaks, Fresh News has also tried to aid the government in areas of policymaking. As the government prepared to dissolve the CNRP, Hun Sen wrestled with an international optics problem; how to maintain the illusion of multi-party democracy while excluding a party that received almost fifty percent of the vote. Fresh News provided the solution when an anonymous opinion writer suggested that the CNRP’s vacant seats be redistributed amongst minor parties based on percentages of the votes they received in the last national election. The government not only adopted this policy, but also used the exact formula suggested by the outlet, allocating seats to parties that won three percent of the vote or less.
At the helm of Fresh News is its CEO Lim Cheavutha, who openly boasts about his close relationship to the government and told Buzzfeed last January that “if [Prime Minister Hun Sen] wants to spread news he comes to me.” Cheavutha rubs shoulders with Cambodia’s political elite: he was pictured at the wedding of the daughter of Kith Meng, a politically active tycoon with close ties to Hun Sen.
In a more surreal episode, Cheavutha personally delivered $60,000 from Hun Sen to the family of activist and political commentator Kem Ley after his murder at a petrol station in 2016. The killing seemed to echo an era of political violence in Cambodia that many had hoped had passed. In a Facebook post, one leading Cambodian opposition figure, Sam Rainsy, called the killing an “assassination” and an “act of state terrorism.”
In a recent interview with Coda, Cheavutha denied any official links with the authorities, but defended his backing of the government. “Fake news in Cambodia are made up by some group of people because they don’t like or support the government,” he said.
He also said one role of Fresh News is to highlight government improvements to Cambodian society. “The government action has been trying to build, to develop, do good things to help the people in so many ways, it’s a lot to describe. So my idea—and as I am one of the Khmer, I see the real good action of the government—why I can’t publish it? Why I can’t publish it because the government is helping the society, helping poor citizens, helping to develop, building schools, donating to people affected by floods and many things else?” he said.
Despite all these intimate connections, Fresh News and the government have insisted that the outlet is financially independent.
Huy Vannak, who works for the Ministry of Interior and the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, told the Southeast Asia Globe that he and Kith Meng helped Cheavutha when Fresh News first launched. Vannak insists they provided only advice and services.
“We Do Not Care”
However, in a recent interview with Coda, an employee at Fresh News said that the government funds the outlet. “The government helps us and provides us whatever we want,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The employee added that he has frequently seen Cheavutha contact Hun Sen directly.
Advertisers on Fresh News also reveal connections to the government. One of the most prominent advertisers is Tiger Beer, which is a major client of Hun Sen’s daughter’s advertising firm, Moon Media.
“Looking ahead, the media landscape in Cambodia will be characterized by an utter absence of independent voices capable of even loosely holding the government to account.”
In the years since Cambodia’s muzzling of the media, Fresh News has been singled out for criticism. The platform was the subject of a scathing review in the 2017 report by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), which ranked Fresh News the least independent outlet in the country. “Arguably the most controversial and notable player in the digital space is Fresh News, a go-to for government announcements that pushes the limits of news and opinion with attack pieces and leaks,” the report reads.
When asked about political bias, the anonymous employee said: “We do not care, we just do what our boss tells us to.” He continued: “It’s great because we earn a lot of money.”
The CCIM report also found that web analytics firm Alexa listed Fresh News as the country’s third most visited local site.
The employee said Fresh News is home to about 100 employees, including 30 reporters. He said Cheavutha delegates most assignments, but personally approves major political stories before publication.
Lee Morgenbesser, Senior Lecturer at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations, said that it is a “meaningless exercise” to try to separate Fresh News from Hun Sen’s regime.
Morgenbesser, who was once described as an “enemy of the Cambodian people” by a government spokesman after he compared Fresh News to Russia Today, is pessimistic about the future of Cambodian media.
“Looking ahead, the media landscape in Cambodia will be characterized by an utter absence of independent voices capable of even loosely holding the government to account,” said Morgenbesser. “The slow eradication of the fourth estate by Hun Sen has left a cabal of state-owned, state-run and state-influenced media outlets. Fresh News is a symptom of that environment.”
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