Recent moves by the Cambodian government to crackdown on independent media – including broadcasters and newspapers – is seen by analysts and activists as a key step by the government to consolidate control ahead of national elections in 2018.

The tougher approach by the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen – in power for over three decades – comes against a backdrop of growing opposition support, especially among younger voters.

Allegations of a government campaign against human rights

Rights activists also point to a broad strategy by the government against both the media and rights activists.

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development condemned the recent attacks against civil society organizations and the free media.

“These repressive measures come at a critical juncture for Cambodia and severely compromise the legitimacy and fairness of next year’s election,” Asian Forum said in a statement.

The group also pointed to the killing of activist Kem Ley in July of last year, as well as the detention of other opposition politicians, as adding to a “culture of fear spreading in the country.”

Campaign takes many forms

The media crackdown has included the imposition of a $6.3 million tax bill against the English-language Cambodia Daily, a newspaper published since 1993, with the paper being forced to shut down if the payment is not met by September 4.

Other targets included Cambodian radio stations broadcasting U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America (VOA), with the government claiming the outlets failed to have the correct licenses, charging the offices were “unregistered” with the authorities.

In late August, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered the closure of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), in international development and democracy organization, ordering the Institute’s foreign staff to leave the country before month’s end.

Billy Chai-Lung Tai, an independent analyst with Human Rights and Project Management, said the moves against the media marked a tougher line by the government on the media and public debate.

Analyst says China is a factor

“The gloves are off, so to speak,” Chai-Lung Tai said in an email to VOA. He added the government was also less reticent now about maintaining “a semblance of upholding human rights to show the (international aid) donors anymore.”

Cambodia has become less dependent on Western foreign development assistance in recent years as the economy has grown and the Cambodian government has built closer ties with China.

Charges that government fears elections

Nathan Thompson, president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC), said the 2018 elections is the main reason for the media crackdown.

“The ruling party is terrified of losing the 2018 elections and so they crack down on all opposing voices,” Thompson told VOA in an email. He pointed to opposition gains in local elections with the results “served to only increase their paranoia”.

He said there were also fears the government may also tighten visa rules and work permits, making it easier for the government to deny visas to both freelance journalists and foreign correspondents.

HRW charges government wants to crush dissent

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said the government was acting dictatorially control the media and “wipe out” opposition political leaders and critical non-government (NGOs) “in a barrage of bogus criminal charges heard by judges beholden to [the Prime Minister].”

Robertson said the strategy by Hun Sen was to, “stifle all the remaining independent media outlets, whether they be radio or newspapers before the real campaigning starts for the July 2018 election.”

In a May commentary, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) noted the Cambodian government had also drawn on the new U.S. administration’s “more hostile rhetoric and policies regarding the [U.S.] media”.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) said the government should first clarify new regulations “rather than immediately launch a crackdown as a first action.”

SEAPA director Edgardo Legaspi called the government’s policy a “systematic attack” at silencing independent media and called on the international community to press the government over the recent crackdown.

“It is important for the international community to voice their concern about the recent events in order to convince the Cambodian Government to adopt a more reasonable approach for their all-too-sudden concern about taxation or reporting airtime buyers,” Legaspi told VOA.

“We must call for the immediate reinstatement of the programming of the canceled radio programs,” he said.

Cambodia’s “freedom of press” ranking is low

Cambodia remains ranked lowly in terms of press freedom with the media watchdog Freedom House, which classifies Cambodia’s media as “not free” while in 2016 Reporters without Borders placed Cambodia at 128 out of 182 countries for the freedom afforded to its press.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said journalists often found themselves “victim to physical attacks, judicial harassment, and even murder.”

CCHR said since 1994, 14 journalists have been killed in Cambodia with most of the killings carried out “with complete impunity,” creating a “climate of fear among Cambodian journalists and political commentators.”

The Cambodian government did not respond to requests for comment.