The first months of 2014 saw a continuation of the political unrest that rocked the capital city of Phnom Penh in the months following the disputed July 2013 national elections. Political protests continued throughout the city in 2014 as the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) boycotted its National Assembly seats over alleged widespread irregularities in the previous year’s election, which maintained control of the legislative body under the Cambodian People’s Party, and its long-ruling leader Prime Minister Hun Sen, who in 2014 marked 30 years as head of state.
However, these protests regularly turned violent, starting with a labor protest on 3 January 2014, where security forces shot dead five garment workers who were demanding higher wages. Other gatherings, such as a rally by led by radio broadcaster Mom Sonando protesting the Ministry of Information’s broadcast licensing regulations, likewise turned violent as security forces enforced a public assembly ban declared by the Ministry of Interior on 4 January and lasted through 25 February.
Despite widespread calls from local civil rights organizations and international bodies for the removal of the ban, government officials defended it as necessary for the restoration of “security and public order.” Nonetheless, civil society groups continued to take to the streets to claim their right to freedom of assembly, resulting in violent clashes that all too often caught journalists in the crossfire.
Attacks on journalists
Journalists covering protests throughout the first half of 2014 were subject to routine threats and attacks from the security guards hired by the Phnom Penh municipality to guard Freedom Park, the capital’s officially designated gathering place for demonstrations. Freedom Park was closed and barricaded by razor wire throughout the city’s ban on assembly. The park became the site of routine clashes between security guards and protestors who tried to gain access to it. The Phnom Penh Post reported that the park’s security guards were “untrained and essentially function as thugs-for-hire,” as their attempts at dispersing gatherings regularly left injured protestors and journalists in their wake.
Evidence gathered from journalists and eyewitnesses indicates that security guards purposefully targeted journalists during these crackdowns. While covering a protest at Freedom Park on April 21, journalist Kung Raiya of the Kampuchea Rikreay newspaper reported hearing orders shouted to security guards to “hit anyone with a camera” shortly before he was assaulted and beaten on his head and body. The guards continued to beat Raiya even after he produced his press identification card. The journalist was only saved from serious injury by a helmet, which was itself broken by the force of the attack.
Throughout 2014, at least eight journalists were attacked by security forces during protests. Among them was Lay Samean, a reporter for VOD, an independent Khmer-language radio station run by Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM). Samean was covering an election protest march near Freedom Park on 2 May when the park’s security guards began forcefully and violently disbursing the marchers. Samean was photographing the guards as they beat a protesting monk when the security guards turned on him. Between six and 10 security guards attacked him, kicking him and beating him with wooden batons in the face, abdomen and arms until he lost consciousness. Samean’s smartphone was also confiscated during the incident. The attack left Samean with extensive damage to his cheek, eye and mouth, which required facial reconstruction surgery in Bangkok.
Though the Ministry of Information at first reacted by issuing a statement condemning the attack, the minister quickly reversed himself, saying the attackers were justified. He accused Samean of verbally provoking authorities, accusations which the reporter denied. CCIM filed a legal complaint on behalf of Samean accusing city officials of instigating and organizing the attack on Samean and other journalists during protests throughout 2014. However, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court dismissed the complaint without explanation on 26 November. It is currently in the process of being re-filed.
While journalists covering the unrest in Phnom Penh faced numerous security concerns throughout 2014, their counterparts in rural Cambodia were at the greatest risk with two provincial journalists murdered and a third international journalist found dead under suspicious circumstances. 2014 proved the deadliest year for journalists in Cambodia since the violent political turmoil of 1997.
On 21 January, journalist Soun Chan was beaten to death in Kampong Chhnang Province by a gang of local fisherman following the publication of his investigative reports on illegal fishing activities in the area. Chan became the 12th journalist confirmed to be murdered in the line of work since 1993.
Further adding to the furor over security concerns for journalists in 2014 was the mysterious death of Canadian journalist Dave Walker, whose badly decomposed body was discovered in Siem Reap in May under suspicious circumstances. Local police attributed his death to natural causes and declined to further investigate.
Just five months later, on 12 October, journalist Taing Try was shot in the head while covering illegal logging activities in Kratie Province. Try’s murder came after three April assaults on journalists who were also covering illegal logging activities. His case is plagued with uncertainties due to a longstanding practice of Cambodian journalists — and individuals claiming to be journalists — engaging in extortion while covering illegal logging and other natural resources issues. Try himself was charged in 2012 with using his position as a journalist to extort a bribe of luxury wood from a man he accused of being involved in illegal logging. Try’s case highlights the safety and security concerns that reporters throughout Cambodia face due to a lack of journalism ethics.
Despite the obvious concerns raised by the murders, anti-impunity advocates in Cambodia also found hope in the November conviction of six individuals for the murder of journalist Soun Chan — the country’s first-ever conviction in the case of a murdered journalist since its first democratic elections in 1993. However, some journalist groups maintain that some individuals who participated in the mob attack that claimed Chan’s life are being protected by powerful local officials and have not yet been brought to justice.
The Cambodian Ministry of Information, the country’s broadcast licensing body, denied radio and TV broadcasting license applications from independent and opposition-aligned media in 2014. In April, the Ministry denied an application for a radio relay station and television license by politician-turned-political-commentator and popular radio personality Mom Sonando. Sonando’s opinionated broadcasts via his Beehive FM station in Phnom Penh are the most long-running, non-government-aligned radio programming in the country, and was called “a Cambodian Rush Limbaugh” in the New York Times. Sonando applies almost yearly for a radio relay station license to expand the reach of his signal, only to see his application routinely rejected.
In September, the broadcast licensing body went on to applications for a radio and a television license from the CCIM for VOD news outlet, which had already seen three of its radio licensing applications previously denied by the Ministry.
However, the political negotiations in July 2014 that resulted in the opposition CNRP ending its boycott of the National Assembly included a stipulation that the opposition be given licenses for a TV and radio station. As of November, the radio license had been issued, but the licensing body has so far refused to issue a TV license, maintaining that there are no frequencies available on the television spectrum, which remains tightly controlled by the ruling party.
Although the issuance of a radio license to the CNRP marks a step forward in terms of opening up the mainstream media for a variety of voices and opinions, the Ministry’s continued refusal of licenses to politically independent news outlets such as VOD remains troubling.
Cybercrime draft law
2014 was likewise an eventful year in terms of legislation with the potential to restrict freedom of expression and press freedom throughout the Kingdom. In April, the international NGO Article 19 released a leaked copy of a Cybercrime Law draft by the Council of Ministers. Though the government had publicly announced in 2012 that it was considering such legislation, the Article 19 leak allowed for the first public scrutiny of the draft, and condemnation from civil society was swift and widespread.
Of particular concern for many NGOs was the draft’s Article 28, which would have criminalized online content critical of the government or politically connected, as well as content deemed immoral or in violation of traditional Cambodian values. Individuals, media outlets or organizations in violation of these or any other provisions of the law would be subject to seizure of property, deregistration or loss of licensing, as well as hefty fines or jail sentences.
Previous comments by government officials revealed the motivation behind the Cybercrime Law, including the Council of Minister’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit’s 2012 statement that “We need to prevent any ill-willed people or bad mood people from spreading false information…We need to control this.” The statement was particularly worrying for human rights activists and civil society organizations, who feared the law could be used to halt or punish online dissemination of information related to human rights violations.
The majority of media outlets remained largely unconcerned regarding the potential effects of a Cybercrime Law on their online operations, and assumed the law would be used as civil society feared — to stifle individuals’ online expression. However, an analysis of the draft text by a group of civil society legal experts argued that the overly broad provisions of the law could be applied against almost any online speech deemed critical of the government, including news reports.
In December, the government announced that it was “scrapping” the widely criticized draft Cybercrime Law.
But even lacking legal framework, the government took a number of steps in 2014 to increase its control over online activity. February 2014 saw the country’s first defamation sentencing over a Facebook post, wherein a Phnom Penh salon owner was sentenced for a post expressing her opinion about a business competitor’s practices. Likewise, in November, the RGC announced plans to create “Cyber War Teams” to monitor online content—and specifically social media—for content it deemed to be misinformation. Other plans to install surveillance equipment directly into the Kingdom’s internet service providers and to send a delegation of 100 government officials to Vietnam to be trained on encryption and forgery raised further concerns by civil society and media regarding the future of online free expression in Cambodia.
In reaction to the scrapping of the draft Cybercrime Law, a number of civil society organizations in January 2015 began drafting a crowd-sourced Great Charter for Cambodian Internet Freedom (GCCIF). Borrowed from a similar effort in the Philippines, the GCCIF aims to provide a positive-rights legal framework for the Internet in Cambodia, specifically protecting the rights to free expression, assembly and privacy in an online-specific context.
Election Reform Law
Two new election laws passed unanimously by the new, two-party legislature in March 2015 despite almost uniform opposition by local and international civil society organizations. The new laws also present the possibility of troubling ramifications for Cambodian media.
Part of the July negotiations that resulted in CNRP claiming its National Assembly seats, the Election Reform Law had been the subject of intense negotiations for months and included a number of controversial points, including a provision that will ban non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from making “direct or indirect speech or texts that insult any party or any candidate” or the “release of any statement…supporting or showing bias to or against any activity or any candidate.”
Civil society groups have expressed concerns that the law could drastically reduce Cambodians’ access to independent news and information during critical election periods by limiting the ability of NGOs to issue or media to publish reports regarding political parties or candidates.