Media, opposition party under fire from Cambodia’s strongman

Since 2008, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has been witness and apparent party to an alarming series of crackdowns on news editors, reporters, members of parliament and human rights defenders.

There has been a collective attack on the press, parliament, and the legal community that continued through 2009, all of which—taken especially with the exploitation of a weak and politicized judiciary—has severely compromised environment for free expression in Cambodia.

The challenges for the Cambodian media in 2010, therefore, will remain and will be heightened by an emboldened government that has limited and narrowed the space for free expression—in media, the courts, and even political and legislative arenas— with passivity as well as deliberate campaigns to silence its critics.

Consider a few sample developments that put Cambodia’s free expression environment on notice in 2009:
• On 26 June 2009, Hang Chakra, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the “Khmer Machas Srok” was meted a one-year prison sentence. He was tried in absentia, despite the fact that he never fled or left the country. He was also fined 9 million Riel (or about US$2250), a considerable sum in Cambodia, for “disinformation” and for “dishonoring public officials”.

• On 8 July , charges against “Moneaksika Khmer” (“Khmer Conscience”) newspaper Sam Dith were dropped, after he issued a formal letter of apology to PM Hun Sen along with a “voluntary” decision to cease publication of his newspaper. A year earlier, Sam Dith had been slapped with criminal charges over an article that suggested links between Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong and the past Khmer Rouge regime.

• The chairman of the Khmer Civilization Foundation, Moeung Son, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on 14 July and was fined a total of 15 million Riels (US$3,750) for “disinformation”, a criminal offense under the UNTAC Law. He had questioned in a press conference supposed government incompetence in a lighting project being done in Angkor Wat.

• Three lawmakers were stripped of their parliamentary immunity in 2009, depriving Cambodians of its highest level and highest profile haven for free expression, and for airing grievances against the most powerful people in the land.

• Mu Sochua on April 2009 charged Hun Sen with defamation after the Prime Minister used a derogatory word to describe her during a press conference. The premier responded by filing a counter-lawsuit, then stripped Mu Sochua of parliamentary immunity through the help of his cohorts in parliament in the process. A municipal court in August found Mu Sochua guilty of defamation and ordered her to pay 6.5 million Riels (approx. US$3,960) in fine and compensation. In October, the Court of Appeals upheld this decision and also dismissed her own suit against Hun Sen. On 10 November Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict and penalty against Mu Sochua.

• Mu Sochua’s colleague, Ho Vann, was similarly stripped also of his parliamentary immunity, then was charged with defamation by a group of 22 senior military officers whose training in Vietnam Ho Vann had mocked in the “Cambodian Daily” as “useless”. On 22 September 2009, Ho Vann was acquitted for lack of evidence. However, the editor and reporter of the daily which carried Ho Vann’s statements, were themselves charged and convicted of defamation. “Cambodian Daily” editor-in-chief Kevin Doyle and reporter Neou Vannarin were each fined US$1,000.

• Opposition leader Sam Rainsy himself was stripped of parliamentary immunity last year. Observers note that he might be charged in connection with his own politically charged actions at the Cambodian-Vietnam border. Regardless of the basis for taking action against him, taking away his parliamentary immunity sends the strongest message yet to the whole chamber and its members, to be mindful of their criticisms of the prime minister.

• After the journalists and parliamentarians, next in the firing line were the lawyers. Kong Sam Onn, the legal counsel who represented Mu Sochua and Ho Vann, was himself charged with defamation by Hun Sen. He was also threatened with disbarment. Like the editor Sam Dith—one of the editors targeted by Hun Sen over 2008 and 2009—Kong Sam Onn was forced to apologize to the prime minister, and was then compelled to join the ruling party, in return for the withdrawal of the case against him.

The developments above seem not only to be politically motivated, but also evidence of a general attempt to restrict and intimidate the overall environment for free expression in Cambodia. In all the defamation cases leveled by government and military officials against journalists 2008 and 2009, it is worth noting that the country’s political leaders totally ignored Cambodia’s Press Law of 1995, and instead invoked the more disproportionate provisions of the country’s newly revised criminal code. Using the harsher 1992 UNTAC (UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia) Law rather than the Press Law of 1995, Cambodia’s leaders have backed the country’s writers and commentators into a corner.

In June 2009, even UN officials felt compelled to speak out on the rash of defamation and disinformation cases being filed against journalists, lawyers, and parliamentarians.  The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called the attacks a “serious threat” to the country’s democratic development.

Banding together
These developments had alarmed the media and civil society communities in Cambodia so much that they are considering a legal defense network for press freedom and free expression in general.  The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said in September that it is teaming up with the Legal Aid of Cambodia, Cambodian Justice Initiative, Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, and the Cambodian Center for Independent Media to establish a media legal defense group. This coalition to defend free expression in Cambodia will be a key development—and likely flashpoint—to monitor in 2010.

Even as the National Assembly passed the amended version of the country’s penal code on 6 October 2009, the CCHR said that defamation remains under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from 100,000 and 10 million riels (US$24 and $2,394)
“Those of us who are members of the civil society community are very concerned about how limitations on freedom of expression will affect our advocacy work when we criticise government institutions and government officers,” Ny Chakrya, head of a rights monitoring group, said. Advocacy groups are concerned that their campaigns on everything, from land grabbing to Cambodia’s foreign relations (with China and Thailand, for example), could all ultimately be affected and restricted by the deteriorating free expression environment.

The CCHR also aired its concern on the vague and ambiguous terminology in the Penal Code that “creates a lack of clarity in the law, leaving it open to judicial interpretation and potential abuse.”

On the other hand, The Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) expressed some optimism with the new penal code, particularly with its provision emphasizing that the Press Law should supersede the earlier UNTAC law.

“We have been fighting for this for the past 15 years,” CAPJ Vice President Duong Hak Sam Rithy said.

Still, of the complaints filed against journalists in 2009, the UN statement said that “these actions undermine the constitutional freedom of opinion and expression which everyone in Cambodia is entitled to, and which is the cornerstone of the exercise of civil and political rights.” It added: “Pursuing the current complaints may reverse the course of the still fragile democratic development process.”

(SEAPA thanks the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists for its contribution to this report.)