Overcoming traditional media restrictions

by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)

Freedom of the press in the Kingdom of Cambodia has been increasingly restricted in 2013, in particular in the context of the National Assembly (NA) elections which took place on 28 July 2013. However, opposition voices increasingly turned to the Internet and social media to campaign, share information and organize rallies. In light of the increase in the use of the Internet as a new way to overcome traditional media restrictions, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has announced the forthcoming adoption of a Cyber Crime Law, raising further concerns for freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Cambodia.

Media and campaign restrictions

Currently, all television stations, most radio stations, and the foremost Cambodian newspapers are owned or controlled by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) or those aligned with the RGC. Only three of the 74 radio stations registered in Cambodia are independent. The CPP’s influence on private and state-owned broadcast stations and newspapers prevent opposition parties and independent individuals from utilizing these channels to share their views or activities, resulting in a uniform, dependent and biased media. Even though censorship is prohibited under Article 3 of the Law on the Press 1995 (the Press Law), the CPP’s control of the media leads to self-censorship; the thirty regular newspapers published in Cambodia are either under government control or practice self-restraint to avoid harassment, threats or even death. There have been twelve journalists killed in Cambodia since 1994; the most recent case was that of Suon Chan, a reporter for the Meakea Kampuchea (Cambodia’s Way) newspaper, who was known for reporting on cases of illegal fishing and who was beaten unconscious and killed by a group of ten fishermen in early February 2014.

Restrictions intensified ahead of the NA elections in a campaign period characterized by unequal capacities to campaign including a lack of resources and radio broadcast bans. On 21 June 2013, the RGCbannedlocal radio broadcasts of commentaries and opinion polls, in the five days preceding the 28 July elections. In addition, on 25 June , the RGC banned Khmer-language foreign radio broadcasts in the month before the elections, including Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, or any foreigner who publicly “support or oppose” political parties or candidates. Due to an immediate outcry by the international community, this ban was reversed on 29 June. However, the 21 June ban remained in place. Both sanctions demonstrate the RGC’s strict control over Cambodia’s broadcast media and the inadequate mechanisms in place to maintain fair media regulation. Restrictions extended beyond the airwaves. On 6 June 2013, Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong requested a ban on campaigning outside of the city’s Freedom Park during the election period, blocking demonstrations from the main streets and parks of Phnom Penh.

Unfortunately irregularities tarnished the voting process. According to the National Election Committee (NEC), the CPP won 68 out of 123 seats in the NA. The results were widely disputed by election monitors and the international community alleging irregularities, leading the members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) to boycott their seats in the NA. In the aftermath of the elections, hundreds of thousands of opposition demonstrators took to the streets. After months of demonstrations and attempted negotiations between party leaders, Cambodia continues to be in a political deadlock. On 30 March 2014, the CNRP held a march and a “People’s Congress,” and released a “Resolution of the 2nd People’s Congress,” listing their demands. The second plenary session of the new NA began on 1 April, without any CNRP parliamentarians.

Continuing restrictions

In the post-election political stalemate, restrictions on traditional media have continued. For instance, the owner of the independent Beehive radio station, Mam Sonando, encountered a myriad of excuses from the RGC to prevent him from expanding his radio broadband or obtaining a television station license. He has been told by the Ministry of Interior (MOI) of an apparent lack of frequency to available, despite the fact that several other radio stations have expanded over the years since he has made his initial request. He was also told that a recent 70 to 80-channel expansion of a Chinese state television network in the Yunnan Province made it impossible to meet his requests. Finally, the MOI resorted to blaming Sonando, explaining that his rejection is due to the 75,000 USD that he owes to the MOI for a supposed broadcasting tax.

An additional concern for traditional media is the continued criminalization of defamation. Prime Minister Hun Sen announced plans to decriminalize defamation on 14 February 2006. However, the NA amended Article 63 of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia Penal Code 1992 (the UNTAC Penal Code) in May 2006, but only removed immediate imprisonment for defamation. On 30 November 2010, when the Cambodian Criminal Code 2009 replaced the UNTAC Penal Code, the criminal status of defamation was retained under Article 305. Though imprisonment is no longer a direct punishment for defamation charges, Article 525 of the Cambodian Criminal Procedure Code 2007 allows for imprisonment for unpaid fines, from 10 days to two years. The fines for defamation charges range between 100,000 and 10 million Riels (KHR), (25 to 2,500 USD). An individual could be imprisoned for six months for the non-payment of a fine between 5 million and one KHR, and maximum of 10 million KHR.

In February 2014, two reporters from the Banteay Meachey newspaper were charged with defamation after reporting on the trial of military Colonel Hang Mao, and referencing many land dispute cases he is linked to. The two journalists have yet to be convicted, and both stand by the verity of their reporting. Mao’s decision to charge them indicates a willingness within Cambodian society to resort to defamation charges, instead of simply asking for a retraction. These two reporters are facing criminal charges and imprisonment because a military colonel did not appreciate their reporting. The severity of these criminal defamation charges in Cambodia stifles legitimate freedom of expression, and should only be used in the most serious cases and not to protect the military officials or the RGC from opposition or criticism.

These severe restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association violate the rights guaranteed in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and other international treaties of which Cambodia is a party. Articles 41, 37, and 42 of the Constitution ensure the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, respectively, reflecting ICCPR articles 19, 21, 22, which are directly applicable in Cambodia as stipulated by Article 31 of the Constitution and reaffirmed by a 2007 decision of the Cambodian Constitutional Council.

Social media alternative

While the NA campaigns were marred by restrictions on freedom of the press and freedom of expression, opposition voices and media found a new space to express themselves in the social media.

In the context of these restrictions, the CNRP turned to social media to reach voters. There are an estimated 1 million Facebook users in Cambodia, mostly aged between 18 to 30 years old. Social media has also allowed young Cambodians to share photos of demonstrations, air the frustrations of citizens ignored by the mainstream media, and discuss political opinions outside the status quo. A significant outcry on social media played a large role in the reversal of the radio broadcast ban on foreign programs. The use of social media has allowed the CNRP to target the youth electorate, reportedly gaining 100,000 online followers in two days.

Even though Cambodia has one of the lowest internet connectivity rates in Southeast Asia, the use of the internet and social media is on the rise. A March 2014 report of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPTC) stated that internet users – including both landline and mobile users – increased from 2.7 million internet users in Cambodia in 2012 to 3.8 million in 2014,or a 42.7% increase.

Despite these discrepancies, the unrestricted nature of Cambodian internet access has been described as a “digital democracy.” Freedom House classifies the current Cambodian internet status as “Partly Free,” a positive description compared to the “Not Free” status of the press. There are no legislative internet regulations in place at this time, though Press and Quick Reaction Unit PQRU) spokesman Ek Tha announced the drafting of a cyberlaw in May 2012. The stated purpose of the law is to “prevent any ill-willed people […] from spreading false information,” indicating the RGC’s desire to control the Cambodian internet landscape.

The RGC is increasingly controlling social media. In May 2013, the NEC entreated social media users and bloggers to “not provide wrong information about the election.” Reports have emerged of requests by the RGC to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block the Ki-Media, Khmerization and Sacrava blogs, all well-known for releasing content critical of the CPP. In addition, 2013 witnessed the first cases of defamation charges being brought against Internet users. In February 2013, schoolteacher Phel Phearun was summoned by the local authorities and threatened with defamation charges. He was charged for his criticism of police procedures on his Facebook page, after two policemen stopped him for lacking license plates, seized his bike, and refused to return his bike immediately after he provided the proper documents. The second instance occurred in November 2013, when Cheth Sovichea was threatened with defamation charges after being arrested for criticizing a senior military police official on Facebook. The two cases were dropped, and the two men were released after their forced apologies to the authorities, but the circumstances suggest that the RGC is paying closer attention to online activity, in hopes of gaining control.

More recently, in February 2014, salon owner and television presenter Duong Zorida was convicted on charges of defamation, after being accused of complaining on Facebook about a woman, the plaintiff, who was luring Zorida’s employees to work at her shop. Zorida was fined 2 million KHR (about 500 USD) and ordered to pay 7 million KHR (about 1,700 USD) to the plaintiffs. Cambodian courts have thus demonstrated that they are willing to consider – and criminalize – online content as they have for offline expression.

Outlook

The future of media regulation and freedom over the course of the next year is uncertain. The main issues plaguing the Cambodian media are a lack of diverse, independent outlets, criminal charges for defamation cases, and the threat of restrictive cyber legislation. Human rights violations are often unreported by the censored media, facilitating a culture of impunity. Those in opposition to the RGC have limited capacity to criticize or campaign against the state, and human rights defenders, including journalists, activists, employees of NGOs, and some politicians, are systematically suppressed, harassed, intimidated, and killed for their work.

However, the rise of social media has allowed many Cambodians to publicly express themselves, and provided a forum for opposition and independent individuals and organizations. The cyber law has yet to be enacted, but may be adopted in 2014. During Cambodia’s second Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council on 28 January 2014, the RGC indicated that it plans to pass many new laws during the first half of 2014. While the NA consists only of CPP parliamentarians, there is concern that restrictive cyber legislation will sail through parliament at the whim of the RGC. This legislation will set an important precedent for the regulation of the internet and social media in Cambodia. Any future legislation on media regulation, related to online restrictions, freedom of information, or defamation charges, must respect the right to freedom of expression and must be precise enough to avoid judicial abuse.