Intimidating the media

[Cambodia  country report for Working within Bounds: Southeast Asia Press Freedom Challenges for 2013. Original/print title: Intimidating the Media in Cambodia]

The situation of media freedom in Cambodia declined in 2012, as evidenced by the number of deadly attacks and harassment of media personnel, many of whom are reporting on corruption and land issues. The increasing number of attacks takes places alongside increasing restrictions from government.

This apparent deterioration of the situation of press freedom in 2012 can be at least partly linked to the fact that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party does not appreciate bad press during election periods: the commune elections were held in June 2012 and the National Assembly elections are scheduled for July 2013. In order to consolidate power and limit criticism, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), under the control of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), tightened its grip on different forms of media in 2012. As a result, both state censorship of the media, as well as self-censorship amongst journalists, bloggers and media professionals, remained rife.

During the run up to the commune elections held in June 2012, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia found that during the election period (18th May – 4th June), the CPP received 7,412 minutes of broadcasting coverage, of which 70 minutes were positive and the remainder were neutral. Comparing this to the two main opposition parties is revealing. The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) received 5,009 minutes of coverage, of which none was positive, 283 minutes were negative and the remainder was neutral. Likewise, the opposition Human Rights Party (HRP) received 5,857 minutes of coverage, of which none was positive, 848 minutes were negative and the remainder was neutral.

The CPP was the only party of the 10 contesting the elections to receive any positive coverage, while the SRP and HRP were the only parties that received negative coverage.

This imbalance is striking and raises serious concerns about the fairness of the electoral process when the media shows such a bias towards one party over others. The fact that the majority of media outlets in Cambodia are owned by CPP, its members or persons affiliated with the CPP seriously jeopardizes the possibility of free and fair elections in the country.

During the national commune elections the Ministry of Information ordered five affiliate FM radio stations to stop airing programming from Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), two US government-funded news agencies. No state-run outlets were placed under a similar embargo. VOA and RFA regularly cover news topics that do not paint the RGC in a favorable light, such as stories of land-grabbing, forced eviction, judicial corruption and labor strikes.

Legislative context

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are guaranteed under Article 41 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia and under the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by Cambodia in 1992. Despite such protections, several draconian domestic laws pose a significant threat to press freedom. For example, the Penal Code, adopted in 2009, contains provisions, which can seriously impede free expression, such as the criminalization of defamation and insult of public officials or institutions. Although the Penal Code defers to the Press Law for defamation and incitement cases involving media professionals, the Press Law is often disregarded or misused. In 2012 the RGC announced the impending adoption of a Cyber Law to regulate and to limit the use of the internet in Cambodia. One of the reasons cited for such a cyber law is to prevent “ill-willed people… from spreading false information”. The draft law has not yet been made available to the public, but fears abound that such a law could be extremely damaging to new forms of media and to freedom of expression online in Cambodia. The experience from Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crime Act provides a pertinent example of how the implementation of a similar cyber law in Cambodia, instead of protecting the interests of the Cambodian people, could have a detrimental effect on political freedom, freedom of expression, and the “right to know”.

Furthermore, the RGC continues to resist the adoption of a freedom of information law in Cambodia, despite the benefits such a law could have for all Cambodian people, especially media professionals. Such a law would promote transparency, help to combat corruption and encourage higher quality and better-informed journalism and public debate. No progress was made regarding the adoption of a freedom of information law in 2012 and in January 2013, the National Assembly summarily rejected a draft law on freedom of information proposed by opposition lawmakers, without so much as entertaining a debate.

Notably, the draft Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organizations (LANGO), which threatened to severely restrict the expression of grassroots organizations and media outlets, was shelved for 2012. However, observers believe that the LANGO has not gone away and is expected to be reintroduced onto the legislative agenda after the National Elections in 2013.

Media control

“Traditional media”, namely print media, radio and television, are the forms of media that are subject to the most stringent levels of control and censorship. Since the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, Cambodia has developed a diverse media landscape, however, the RGC still heavily influences most media channels.

All television stations, most radio stations, and the foremost Cambodian newspapers are either owned or controlled by the CPP members or individuals aligned with the ruling party, thereby ensuring the RGC’s control over the dissemination of information. Newspapers play a key role in the Cambodian media landscape. Over 300 newspapers are registered with the Ministry of Information, while just over a dozen of these are published on a regular basis in Cambodia. However, low literacy rates, and the fact that 85% of Cambodians live in rural areas and have no opportunity to buy newspapers, which are predominantly circulated in the urban centers, limit the reach and penetration of this form of print media.

It has also been mostly newspaper journalists who have been the subject of government actions to impose censorship.

Radio therefore has the broadest reach. There are 74 radio stations officially registered in Cambodia; most are CPP-influenced. There are three independent radio stations in the country, and one of them, Beehive, has faced repeated restrictions. Mam Sonando, the owner of Beehive has been arrested three times, most recently in 2012.

Cambodia has one of the lowest internet connectivity rates in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless internet use has been increasing in recent years and there has been a surge in the use of social media sites and platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Independent news stations are disseminating information online and bloggers are spreading opinions and ideas, many of which are critical of the RGC. The relative absence of restrictions of online content in Cambodia has been such that well-known Cambodian blogger and CCHR Program Director, Chak Sopheap, has described the internet as Cambodia’s “new digital democracy”.Likely due to low penetration, the internet remains the least restricted form of media in Cambodia, however this could all change with the proposed passing of the above-mentioned Cyber Law.

Violence link to land issues and illegal logging

In 2012, violence seems to have been embraced as a means of suppressing journalists who investigate illegal logging and links between loggers and individuals connected with the ruling CPP. On 26 April 2012, prominent environmental activist, Chut Wutty, was shot dead in Koh Kong province while accompanying two journalists to investigate illegal logging. After the shooting of Chut Wutty, threats were made to the lives of the journalists at the scene of the murder, as the military police attempted to cover up the crime. No investigation was carried out into the murder of Chut Wutty, with authorities claiming that the military officer who murdered him, In Ratana, was afterwards shot dead by Rann Borath, the chief of security for the logging company. It was claimed that Rann Borath accidentally shot In Ratana while trying to disarm him. On 22 October, Rann Borath was sentenced to two years in prison for “unintentional murder”, however his sentence was reduced to six months – the amount of time he had already spent in prison.

Most prominently, Hang Serei Oudom, reporter for Vorakchun Khmer Daily newspaper in Ratanakkiri province, was murdered on 9 September 2012. His bludgeoned body was found two days later in the trunk of his car. Hang Serei Oudom had been investigating illegal logging and reporting his findings to the Vorakchum Khmer Daily. Two people have been arrested as suspects in this case, however it is believed that other well-connected people were involved.

Following Hang Serei Oudom’s murder, it was reported that Ek Sokunthy, a reporter with Ta Prom newspaper in Ratanakkiri province who was also investigating illegal logging, received a thinly-veiled warning from officials, who asked him ‘Did you hear about the death? Do you want to follow? Do you want to continue your career here?’ On 25 September 2012, Ek Sokunthy was assaulted at his home by three men, including an armed former police officer. He was beaten with wooden sticks and a pistol, resulting in injuries to the head and body. It was also suggested that his wife had been physically assaulted during the attack.

Violence against journalists is generally met with impunity and the token nature of the investigations into the attacks against Hang Serei Odom and Ek Sokunthy follows the same trend. These cases also suggest that the illegal loggers in Ratanakkiri wield significant influence over local authorities, courts and law enforcement.

In another case, Vichey Anon, a reporter for RFA, was found unconscious 10 December the road between Kratie province and Stung Treng province. The day before, he had written an article about the arrest of fellow journalist Taing Try, including allegations from a third party that a powerful local businessman (identified only as “Eourn”) was operating illegal logging in the area. The timing of Vichey Anon’s injury raises serious concerns that he was not the victim of a random traffic accident, but instead was deliberately targeted in retaliation for his article the day before. No investigation into the “accident” has been conducted to date.

Intimidation of journalists

In 2012 there were frequent reports of threats and intimidation faced by journalists and news outlets. In March, for example, Thet Sambath, a journalist and film-maker whose documentaries about the Khmer Rouge challenge an accepted version of Cambodian history, expressed his fear that his life was in danger as a result of his work. Thet Sambath claimed that he had been harassed, chased and attacked by uniformed and plainclothes RGC agents, often while in isolated rural areas, and that the RGC’s intention was to make him the victim of a kidnapping, robbery or car accident.

On 10 October 2012, journalists from RFA and VOA attended a closed-door meeting with cabinet officials, after being invited by the RGC to discuss their “professionalism”. Although RGC spokesman Phay Siphan claimed that the aim of the meeting was to “strengthen the quality of professionalism” of VOA and RFA reporting, one of the main issues discussed was the reporting on the cases of Mam Sonando and Chut Wutty – two cases for which the RGC had been receiving widespread criticism. The meeting was seen as an attempt to intimidate reporters from two of the only free media outlets reporting in Cambodia. After the meeting, both news outlets vowed that they would continue to cover important news stories independently. RFA announced that “The Cambodian government clearly does not understand the principles of a free press or the important role of independent media if it thinks that it can intimidate RFA and dictate what we can and cannot report on. We stand by our stories and our reporters.”

Judicial harassment

The judiciary continued to be used as a political tool in Cambodia, in order to silence dissent. As a result, several media professionals faced judicial harassment including defamation and disinformation charges, and in the case of Mam Sonando, charges of insurrection and incitement.

In January 2012, Kong Bun Thoen, a reporter for Meatophum newspaper, had a defamation complaint filed against him by the Prosecutor of Kampong Chhnang provincial court, for a November 2011 article accusing the Prosecutor of accepting bribes from illegal loggers. The case did not progress but the journalist rightfully pointed out that the Prosecutor should have referred to the Press Law and asked him to print a correction but instead he threatened defamation charges.

Taing Try, a reporter affiliated with the Khmer Democratic Journalists’ Association who had also contributed to Meatophum newspaper, was arrested in December on unspecified charges. Associates of Taing Try, who had recently exposed a timber smuggling group and reported their activities to the local police, claimed that he had been arrested ‘because he had witnessed illegal timber smuggling and reported it to the authorities’. These illegal activities were allegedly connected to a powerful businessman. Taing Try has since been released from detention on bail but the case is still being investigated.

On 15 June 2012, journalist and radio station owner Mam Sonando was arrested at his home in Phnom Penh on spurious charges of insurrection and incitement to take up arms against the state. The charges related to an alleged secession in Kratie province, which was the site of a land conflict. Despite never having been to Kratie and having only ever met villagers from the area once during a five to ten minute meeting, Mam Sonando was found guilty of these grave charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Despite a stark lack of evidence to implicate the journalist, Mam Sonando was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

On appeal, the serious charges against Mam Sonando were dropped and his sentence was reduced to five years in prison with four years and four months suspended. He was released on 15 March, the day after the appeal verdict, having already spent eight months in prison.

Outlook

As a result of political context, restrictive or misapplied legislation, censorship, lack of plurality and harassment of media professionals, the situation of press freedom in Cambodia falls short of the requirements of a functioning democracy. The majority of media outlets are owned or controlled by the CPP and independent news sources are frequently harangued and repressed. The internet is developing as a new medium for free and fair news and opinion however, a draft Cyber Law threatens to impede this growing avenue.

Despite regular crackdowns on free expression, civil society is outspoken regarding the lack of press freedom in Cambodia. Several journalist associations exist, such as the Club of Cambodian Journalists and the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, however, these associations, while they are reasonably active on some cases, do not reach all journalists and have no means to protect journalists or media outlets when they are targeted by the RGC.