‘I will not be intimidated’ – journalist

Impunity continues to reign in the Cambodia. The steady occurrence of violence against the media followed by impunity signifies that little progress has been made over the past four years. Incidents of impunity vary from murder cases of human rights activists and journalists that are never investigated, to cases where security forces have used excessive force against civilians and remain unpunished, to well-connected officials evading justice.

Impunity can have severe impact on the work of journalists. It is a threat to freedom of expression and press freedom, as it creates a culture of fear about speaking the truth, which the State has actively strengthened by refusing to address abuses.

Many cases of violence against the media have recently been met with impunity. In 2012, Hang Serei Oudom, a journalist reporting on illegal logging, was found murdered in the trunk of his car.[1] In January 2014, Suon Chan, a reporter who covered illegal fishing, was beaten to death by fishermen.[2]

Scores of others have faced violence as they report on issues that threaten elite interests.[3] Independent investigations have not been conducted and perpetrators have not been convicted.

Amongst these incidents is Lay Samean’s story.

The case of Lay Samean

Lay Samean, 27 years old, is a reporter for Voice of Democracy (VOD), an entity of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), a non-governmental organization whose vision is a well informed and empowered Cambodian population.

On 2 May 2014, Samean covered a rally held by opposition party supporters at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. He was attacked after attempting to take photos of security guards chasing a monk; and beaten unconscious by up to ten security guards, who left him laying in the street.[4] His head injuries and broken cheekbone required him to travel to Bangkok for surgery costing US$30,000, which was covered by funds CCIM raised publically.[5]

Samean stated that, “When they saw me take a photo of their activity, they rushed to beat me like a robber, and I lost my smartphone as well.”[6]

Pa Nguon Teang, director of VOD, stated that people taking pictures, including at least two other reporters, were targeted. Loun Sovath, the monk Samean was photographing, claims that he was also targeted for taking photos.[7]

Responses

The attack on Samean threatens Article 41 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which protects “freedom of expression, press, publication and assembly”, and Article 38 which protects against physical abuse.[8] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also protects press freedom and freedom of expression.[9] However, neither the judiciary, the police nor the government have adequately responded.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith “investigated the cause of the clash” and claimed that he was “not condoning any form of violence against journalists.”[10]

However, in the only information made publically available from the investigation, Kanharith accused Samean of insulting the security guards prior to the attack, which was denied by Samean and other witnesses.[11] With this accusation, the Minister implicitly blames Samean for the attack, and demonstrates that he does not appreciate the gravity of the situation.

The attack was also denounced by the Ministry of Information as a “very serious violation on freedom of the press”, which called the relevant parties to uphold their duties.[12] However, no action has been taken, and the comments were criticized as “nothing more than rhetoric.”[13]

CCIM filed a lawsuit for damages against the officials responsible for the security guards, requesting US$30,000 in compensation for medical expenses, but the complaint is still with the court. No other investigation by police or the judiciary have been conducted, despite widespread criticism. It appears that for now Samean will remain a victim of impunity.

Impact

Violence and impunity against the media directly threatens press freedom, and freedom of expression and information. Reporters Without Borders stated that “Impunity for the physical violence deployed… has a deterrent effect on reporters and encourages the media to censor themselves.”[14] Impunity may stop journalists covering stories that do not align with the views of elites for a fear of violence and injustice.

According to the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2014, Cambodia is ranked 144th out of 180 countries.[15] The ranking considers the ‘environment and self-censorship’, and impunity has therefore undoubtedly contributed to Cambodia’s low ranking.

Violence and impunity may dissuade some, but others such as Samean refuse to be deterred. He declared: “I understand the risks that come with reporting the truth. I have the scars to prove it. But I will not be intimidated… I will continue to report the truth, because I am a professional journalist and because I believe in a Cambodia that is better than the one I see today.”[16]

[1] Ratha Visal, ‘Cambodian Court Acquits Two in Slaying of Journalist’ Radio Free Asia (28 August 2013) http://bit.ly/1pV7Y6I.

[2] CCHR, ‘Suon Chan,’ (Fact sheet) http://bit.ly/1xp3Gxt.

[3] See: Reporters Without Borders, ‘Deliberate Violence Against Journalists Covering Peaceful Protests’ http://bit.ly/1Csapqn; May Titthara, ‘State violence against reporters condemned’ The Phnom Penh Post (21 April 2014) http://bit.ly/1rbMUMD; CCIM, ‘Repeated Attacks on Journalists Unacceptable’ (25 April 2014) http://bit.ly/1pvn4zY.

[4] Kevin Ponniah, ‘Reporter, ‘witnesses’ tell different stories’ The Phnom Penh Post (22 May 2014) http://bit.ly/1v7L2rC; Samean Yun and Joshua Lipes, ‘Five Injured in Second Day of Crackdown at Phnom Penh Park’ Radio Free Asia (2 May 2014) http://bit.ly/ZfHAj1; Lay Samean, ‘Official Statement by VOD Reporter Lay Samean’ CCIM (28 May 2014) http://bit.ly/1ok4BXR.

[5] Sen David, ‘Journalist sues for damages’ The Phnom Penh Post (29 May 2014) http://bit.ly/1rnZzwM.

[6] Yun and Lipes (n 6).

[7] ibid.

[8] Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Articles 41 and 38.

[9] International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, Article 19.

[10] Ponniah (n 5).

[11] Sen David, ‘Journalist sues for damages’ The Phnom Penh Post (29 May 2014) http://bit.ly/1rnZzwM.

[12] Kuch Naren and George Wright, ‘Journalists Garner Support, Monks Silent in Wake of Attacks’ The Cambodia Daily (6 May 2014) http://bit.ly/1wNc1rE.

[13] International Federation of Journalists, ‘Cambodian Journalist Brutally Attacked at Rally’ (6 May 2014) http://bit.ly/1utdTrI.

[14] Reporters Without Borders (n 3).

[15] Reporters Without Borders, ‘World Press Freedom Index 2014’ (31 January 2014) 31 http://bit.ly/1i8eJmA.

[16] Lay Samean (n 6).