With an election that's just five months away, Cambodia is at a tipping point. The government of Hun Sen, the world's longest-serving prime minister, is fearing the prospect of losing its parliamentary majority, after having been in power in various guises since 1979.

A concerted campaign is under way to silence opposition figures, NGOs and media outlets refusing to toe the government's line. Three months ago, the government dissolved the opposition party, arrested its leader on charges of treason, which prompted more than half of the opposition's MPs to flee the country.

Multiple media outlets, both on the airwaves and in print, have been forced to shut down over tax evasion charges that journalists say are simply designed to silence voices of dissent.

"We report the truth and the truth really hurts the government," according to Vuthy Huot, Khmer service deputy director of Radio Free Asia. "We broadcast, for example, about deforestation, and those businessmen who are conducting the deforestation, are the children, nephews, nieces of the government official. And that makes the government really, really unhappy with us."

In September, The Cambodia Daily, a newspaper known for its fervent criticism of the government, was forced to print its final pages. Journalists believe it's their content the authorities are taking issue with but the government is sticking to its line.

"The case of the Cambodia Daily and the Radio Free Asia, they do not abide by the law of the sovereign state. They do not pay tax. And if you live in a civilised nation, tax evasion is a crime," says Huy Vannak, the under-secretary of state.

If you dare to criticise the government, dare to speak the truth, you have to leave the country for fear of arrest and persecution. I, myself, have had to leave the country and the government issued an arrest warrant against me. I cannot return to Cambodia.

Vuthy Huot, Khmer service deputy director, Radio Free Asia

Trumped-up tax charges, closures, and suspensions are just some of the tactics in Hun Sen's media playbook. The arrests of numerous reporters, usually on charges of treason or attempts to overthrow the government, has forced many journalists to flee the country and scared those who remain into silence.

With the space for traditional media shrinking, Facebook has offered an alternative.

A recent study by the Asia Foundation found that the network has, since 2016, become Cambodians' go-to source for news.

READ MORE: Challenging Cambodia's strongman Hun Sen

But in October last year, Facebook chose Cambodia as one of six countries to participate in an experiment in which content from news publishers was pushed away from people's news feeds into a separate 'Explore' section, unless they were prepared to pay to promote it. The effect was tangible.

"When Facebook rolled out its explorer experiment in October, people were very concerned. The fear was that you would have a very biased situation where most independent media would be pushed onto the explore field, and then other media, perhaps with the financial resources, would still be able to put their contents on the news feed," says Astrid Noren-Nilsson, associate senior lecturer at Lund University.

The Facebook experiment played right into the hands of the prime minister, who seemed set on taking down all US-funded media outlets from the outset.

Ever since the 2013 election, his party has accused these outlets of being part of an American conspiracy to topple the government.

The irony is, the CCP has long been dependent on the US for aid, but those funds come with strings attached: preserving media freedoms for example. But it appears that Hun Sen no longer needs to comply with the commitment to democracy thanks to a new partner: China.

When the Cambodia Daily was closed down, the PM kept "raising up the relationship he had with China", says political commentator Cham Bunthet. "Probably the government tried to send [a] message to the US government that 'I'm not afraid of you, you are not my boss, this is my country'."

But if China's own record on press freedom is anything to go by, the new relationship between Phnom Penh and Beijing does not bode well for the Cambodian journalists silenced and the media outlets shut down.

And in the run-up to a crucial election, Cambodian voters are getting less and less news and information. 

Huy Vannak, under-secretary of state
Cham Bunthet, political commentator
Vuthy Huot, Khmer service deputy director, Radio Free Asia
Astrid Noren-Nilsson, associate senior lecturer, Lund University

Source: Al Jazeera