Government extends control to new frontiers

[Cambodia country report to SEAPA’s 2012 Press Freedom Report, Online media is the space to watch]

In 2011, Cambodia’s ruling party, which dominates all branches of government, sought to extend its control over civil society. The proposed draft law to regulate non-governmental organizations (NGOs) demonstrates the intention of the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP)-led government to create a tool to silence civil society, one of the few critical voices in the country.

The government also continued to intimidate its critics through criminal charges against journalists and dissenters, and the closure of opposition newspapers. Government moves to block critical websites in 2011 heralded the extension of government censorship to a new medium.

Muzzling civil society

The draft NGO law ostensibly aims to “enhance cooperation” between government and civil society, but has the potential to keep civil society on a tight leash through limits on NGO operations and by giving government the power to do away with organizations critical of it. The government’s record of systematically silencing critics, all but assures that the proposed legislation will be used for this.

Following the long period of civil war in the country, NGOs have played a vital role in the rehabilitation and reconstruction process in Cambodia. The country has a vibrant civil society with over 2,000 local and 300 international NGOs operating in the country, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law.

The first draft of the proposed law to be known as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) was made public in December 2010 and drew widespread criticism from the NGO community. Following a public consultation in January 2011, the government issued a second draft of the law in March 2011 but this still had many problematic provisions as well as new items of concern. A third draft version of the legislation was released in July 2011 but without a consultation meeting this time.

SEAPA is concerned about the potential negative effect of the draft law on the media environment in Cambodia. Since the first draft, SEAPA has closely followed its evolution, spoken out against the law and highlighted the risk this draft law carries to “be used to undermine freedom of association, expression and assembly.” SEAPA has worked with other concerned organizations in lobbying relevant stakeholders in the country to pressure the Cambodian government to withdraw the law. In November 2011, SEAPA, in conjunction with nine other international NGOs, sent letters to various foreign missions, UN Special Procedures, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), calling on them to “convince Cambodian authorities to immediately withdraw the draft law.”

On 12 December 2011, the Cambodian government released the fourth version of the draft law and held consultations with a select group of civil society organizations shortly thereafter. Civil society groups conceded there were some “improvements” in the latest draft, among them, dropping requirements for NGOs to submit bank statements and to notify local authorities on their proposed activities.

Nonetheless, broader issues threatening NGOs remain. As the local NGO Cambodian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) said in a statement, “key provisions raise more questions that they answer, both in terms of the law’s application and the intent of the government.”

The NGO registration and reporting process outlined in the fourth draft of the law continues to be complex and burdensome. This can be a serious constraint to the work of smaller NGOs and community-based organizations which may not have the capacity to meet the draft law’s requirements. The proposed legislation law also lacks clear and objective criteria to deny registration (Articles 8 and 13) to an NGO.  Articles 17, 30 and 31 allow for involuntary suspension or dissolution of an operating NGO by the government. The vague criteriaallows the government to deny registration or shut down already operating organizations for political reasons. Furthermore, the draft law does not provide safeguards such as the right to appeal or judicial review for NGOs denied registration, endowing the executive branch with absolute power in the matter.

If enacted, this law will also have adverse effects on the Cambodian media. “Information sources for the media among local associations will likely dry up because those association officials will rightly worry that the government could shut them down overnight,” said Human Rights Watch. The NGO law could also make local and foreign media more reluctant to cover NGOs and their work in the interest of protecting the organizations.

SEAPA and other NGOs have declared that the draft law undermines the rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly as guaranteed by Articles 41 and 42 of the Cambodian Constitution, and Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the country is party.

Regardless of improvements to the draft law, the law must be looked at in light of the current situation in the country. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said that government efforts to “window dress” the NGO law “must be considered in light of the reality on the ground: any law that regulates NGOs and civil society will be harmful in the current context.”

On 15 August, the Ministry of Interior ordered Sahamkum Teang Tnaut (STT), a well-known land rights NGO critical of the government, to suspend work because it had failed to heed warnings regarding an unnamed “violation” it had allegedly committed. International and local NGOs said the case was a “preview” of what may come under the new draft law.

Using the courts to silence critics

Although the Cambodian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, critics say this is threatened by nine provisions in a recently revised version of the Penal Code which came into effect on 10 December 2010. The provisions include penalties for public defamation, public insult, slanderous denunciation, incitement to commit a crime, incitement to discrimination, contempt, publication of comments intended to influence courts, discrediting a judicial decision and false denunciation of judicial authority.

In 2011, the Cambodian judiciary, all of whose judges are members of the ruling party, aggressively applied the Penal Code and other laws in multiple attempts to silence journalists, editors, human rights defenders and political activists seen to have criticized the government.

On 13 October 2011, Sok  Ratha Visal, a reporter of Radio Free Asia (RFA) was ordered to appear in court to answer two-year-old incitement charges against him and two human rights defenders. The initial 2009 charges against Ratha Visal arose from his reporting of a land dispute for RFA. He was ordered to reappear in a provincial court after a judge revised the report of a retired magistrate. Ratha Visal’s attorney submitted a request to the provincial prosecutor urging him to close the dossier.

Also in October 2011, Pen Samethi, Editor-in-Chief of Rasmei Kampuchea, Cambodia’s largest daily newspaper, was sued for defamation by the Siem Reap provincial prosecutor. Pen Samethi was charged in connection with two articles published in the paper stating that the government had not done enough to prevent illegal logging in the province. Pen Samethi accused the prosecutor of abusing the law, citing non-compliance with the Penal Code procedure regarding accusations of libel the court could investigate. The Minister of Justice complied with Pen Samethi’s request to move the case from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh where it is awaiting trial.

Earlier, on 4 August 2011, five men were convicted of charges of provocation under article 495 of the Penal Code for having distributed leaflets critical of the government between 2008 and 2011. Phon Sam Anth and Eang Samorn received two-year prison sentences and So Khemarak, Ngor Menghong and Chem Bol received 18 months. All were also fined the equivalent of US$487.

There is also evidence of the government’s increasing intolerance of criticism. Voice of America (VOA) Khmer reporter, Sok Khemara is at the center of contempt charges filed by the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal. On 10 August, VOA aired a series of interviews conducted by Khemara with suspects in two cases currently before the court. The tribunal alleges the interviews violated the confidentiality agreement of the court as it directly quoted from confidential documents of the tribunal, which had been leaked earlier that year.

This charge was filed against VOA amid fears expressed by rights groups and court monitors that the two cases were not being actively pursued by the court due to political pressure from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. This is the first time that contempt of court proceedings have been actively pursued against a media organization for its reporting on the tribunal, as local journalists say similar tactics have been used in the past as a form of intimidation.

These cases show a clear pattern of the government using the law to gag the media and others who criticize the government. While there is no formal media censorship in Cambodia, government attempts to punish critics through the courts could force journalists to exercise further self-censorship and prevent media coverage of important issues.

Newspapers shut down

On 3 August 2011, two newspapers critical of the Cambodian ruling party were shut down permanently. The Water and Fire News and The World News, both published by the same owner, were ordered closed by the Ministry of Information  following their denial of the ministry’s repeated requests to publish their addresses, and also because of a “perceived insult to the Ministry of Information” though the ministry gave no explanation of what constituted this insult.

The director of the two newspapers, Keo Amnot Sangkhem, said he had voluntarily stopped publishing The Water and Fire News temporarily three years ago after receiving a threat from a government official over the publication of an article about the death of the National Police Commissioner.

The beginning of Internet censorship

As Internet use grows in Cambodia, the government is acting to censor any attempts to express opposition political views through the medium. Internet penetration is growing rapidly from the current low coverage of just 0.5% of the population, according to World Bank estimates. At the end of 2010, Cambodia had nearly 175,000 Internet subscribers, sharply up from 30,000 the previous year.

Currently  there is no Internet regulation  in Cambodia but the government is beginning to see the medium as a threat. On 20 January 2011, Prime Minister Hun Sen attacked an unnamed foreign source of using the Internet to stir up unrest in the country. The source had said there should be a “Tunisia-style” revolt in the country and Hun Sen threatened to “beat on the head” anyone using the Internet to incite revolt.

In February 2011, The Phnom Penh Post revealed e-mail messages from a senior official in Cambodia’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, ordering local ISPs to censor websites with anti-government content including KI-Media, a news blog that frequently publishes material critical of the government.

The reported official minutes of a meeting on 10 February 2011 quoted the Minister of Post and Telecommunications asking mobile phone operators to “cooperate” in blocking certain sites “that affect the Khmer morality and tradition of the government.”

The government denies it has ordered blocking of KI-Media or any website. But according to Cambodian human rights centre CCHR, officials have gone on record saying that KI-Media should be blocked, suggesting that censorship may soon become a reality in Cambodia. The print and broadcast media in Cambodia generally follow the political directives of the ruling party, making the Internet one of the few forums for government criticism.

Outlook

Over the past few years, the nature of media control has changed in Cambodia. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), no journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 2008. Instead, the trend has shifted from silencing critics with murder, violent attacks and threats of punitive legal measures. This trend is expected to continue in 2012 as the current draft NGO law will most likely be adopted and with Senatorial elections taking place at the end of January, there is little likelihood of the CPP tolerating any criticism.

On the other hand, Cambodia assumes the chairman role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2012. This leadership position may put pressure on the government to bring domestic policies, such as the NGO draft law, in line with international human rights standards. The draft ASEAN human rights declaration, which was expected in 2011, may be tabled for adoption under Cambodia’s chairmanship.