The change of administration in the United States of America is already having repercussions in the Kingdom of Cambodia (“Cambodia”), as authoritarian regimes throughout the region take note of the White House’s new, more hostile rhetoric and policies regarding the media. Last month, Cambodian Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan cited the example of President Trump in justifying the Royal Government of Cambodia’s (“RGC”) plans to “crush” media outlets that endanger “peace and stability.”1 While legitimization of such threats by reference to the stance of the United States may be unprecedented, restrictions of press freedom in Cambodia are nothing new.
In yearly reports published by both Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House, Cambodia is regularly subjected to scathing criticism for its lack of press freedom. In its 2016 summary of press freedom in Cambodia, Freedom House rated its press, “not free.”2 Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, places Cambodia at 128 out of 182 countries for the freedom afforded to its press, specifically referring to the “indirect control” the RGC exerts over all media outlets in Cambodia.3 Journalists in Cambodia brave enough to speak truth to power in spite of the RGC’s low tolerance for criticism have found themselves victim to physical attacks, judicial harassment, and even murder.
Fourteen journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1994, with successful convictions in only two cases.4 These killings, carried out in most instances with complete impunity, have created a climate of fear among Cambodian journalists and political commentators. Winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award in 2013, Bopa Phorn is well versed in the dangers and difficulties facing Cambodian journalists. Her work has frequently made her a target for violent attacks, particularly her coverage of land rights abuses and environmental exploitation. In April 2012 Phorn came under gun fire while on an assignment with fellow journalist Olesia Plokhii and environmental activist Chut Wutty, who lost his life in the attack. The frequency of attacks of this nature is evidenced by Reporters Without Borders’ designation of Cambodia as the most dangerous place in the world for environmental journalists in 2015.5
In February 2017, a direct warning from Prime Minister Hun Sen left Meas Ny, a prominent Cambodian political analyst, fearing for his safety. In a diatribe aimed at Mr. Ny and the staff of the English language Phnom Penh Post, the Prime Minister advised that Meas Ny not “go too far,” while also alluding to the presence of an RGC mole in the paper’s office.6 The claim, subsequently denied by Phay Siphan, came in the wake of an interview given to the paper by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) chief whip Son Chhay regarding the non-attendance of the opposition at parliament. The Prime Minister had a few equally ominous words for Cambodian NGOs and journalists in March 2017, warning that those whose “rights touch others” can expect to find themselves in jail.7
Journalists in Rattanakiri were issued with a subtler warning in May 2015. On the basis that it “looks improper,” deputy governor Nhem Sam Oeun asked that journalists desist in congregating in coffee shops in the province’s Banlung City.8 While Mr. Oeun was careful to emphasise that he was making a “request,” rather than a threat, it nevertheless has a chilling effect on the ability of journalists to carry out their legitimate work.
In addition to physical threats, journalists have also faced harassment in the courts,9 made possible by a judiciary of dubious independence and Cambodia’s frequently criticised defamation laws, which fail to satisfy the international standards to which Cambodia is bound by Article 31 of the Constitution. Broadly defined in Article 305 of the Cambodian Criminal Code as, “any allegation or charge made in bad faith which tends to injure the honor or reputation of a person or an institution,” Cambodia’s defamation law has proved a valuable weapon in the RGC’s crackdown on dissent. The low threshold and possible criminal punishment for defamation outlined in the Criminal Code remain in force in Cambodia despite the position of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee that all state parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) should consider the decriminalization of defamation.10 Rhona Smith, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, condemned in January 2017, “the use of criminal provisions as a pretext to supress and prevent the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression.”11 With criticism of court decisions or attempts to influence the judiciary explicitly criminalized by virtue of Articles 523 and 522 respectively, Cambodia’s Criminal Code further undermines the constitutionally and internationally protected right to free expression.
Given the tight RGC control of traditional media outlets, the internet has quickly grown into a vital democratic tool in Cambodia. Bloggers, journalists, and news outlets have begun to utilise social media in particular as a means of sharing information regarding governance, human rights, and corruption. It should come as no surprise that the RGC, given the heavy shadow it casts over such discourse in Cambodian society, has begun to devise legislative mechanisms to restrict online criticism. In April 2014, an unofficial leaked version of a Draft Cybercrimes Law revealed plans to place severe restrictions on online discourse.
Demonstrative of the lack of tolerance the RGC intends to display to online criticism was the 18 month prison sentence handed down to university student Kong Raiya following his reference to a “color revolution” in a Facebook post.12 While the planned development of an access to information law would be a positive step for transparency in Cambodia, this is undermined by the rumored parallel development of a new law on state secrets, which appears to run directly contrary to values of openness and accountability.13
The English language press has faced accusations of being agents of color revolution.14 Traditionally afforded greater freedom than their Khmer counterparts, the RGC’s threats against their reporting illuminate again the shrinking space available for dissent in Cambodia. Along with the freedom of the Cambodian media and the risks facing Cambodian journalists, Reporters Without Borders have also published damning findings relating to media ownership in the Kingdom.15 Of the twenty-seven owners of Cambodian media outlets surveyed by Reporters Without Borders, ten are compromised by political affiliations, while nine are business tycoons. Of even greater concern is the concentration of 83.4 percent of the cross-media audience in the hands of just four media outlet owners. Such a concentration of media influence presents obvious difficulties in attempting to establish a pluralist, impartial, and transparent media in such a climate are plain to see in Cambodia.
When viewed cumulatively, these factors present a damning picture of press freedom in Cambodia. The RGC’s control of the Khmer-language media, coupled with its influence over the judiciary, leave Cambodian journalists with very little breathing space to safely carry out their legitimate work. While increasingly buoyed in recent weeks by the apparently reduced tolerance for media criticism in the White House, the RGC’s latest threats against journalists are far from its first. In the wake of a July 2016 report by Global Witness into the business interests of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the discrepancies contained therein, Reporters Without Borders were moved to condemn a “surge,” in threats against members of the Cambodian media.
On that occasion, the source of the threats was again the aforementioned Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, whose supposed desire not to see “the messenger killed” is all the more menacing when viewed in the context of the deaths, attacks, and harassment to which Cambodian journalists have been subjected in the past.16 As with the most recent series of threats against journalists, breaches of “professionalism” and “ethics” were cited in justifying the RGC’s aggressive stance. The problem faced by the Cambodian media is the fact that the requisite standards of professionalism and ethics required appear to be set by the RGC itself, and are manipulated to serve its needs in any given situation.
The importance of a free and impartial press is all the more important in the lead up to commune and national elections in Cambodia, in June 2017 and July 2018 respectively. Without being presented with a clear, balanced, and fair picture of the current state of affairs in their country, ordinary Cambodians could be left feeling disengaged and excluded from the political process entirely. The RGC have been explicit in warning of the dangers faced by Cambodian journalists willing to stick their heads above the parapet, with Prime Minister Hun Sen recently warning that any who doubt the veracity of the RGC’s threats should, “face death by lightning bolt.” Such ominous warnings, coupled with its control of the judicial and legislative process, allows the RGC to exert a vice-like grip on the freedom of the Cambodian press.
1 Trump Ban Cited in Media Threat, The Phnom Penh Post, 27 February 2017 http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/trump-ban-cited-media-threat
2 Cambodia Freedom of the Press 2016 https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2016/cambodia
4 Statement: CSOs Call for an End to Impunity in Cambodia on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, Licadho, 2 November 2015 http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=393
5 Cambodia Most Dangerous Place for Environmental Reporters: Report, The Cambodia Daily, 28 November 2015 https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/cambodia-most-dangerous-place-for-environmental-reporters-report-101422/
6 PM Takes Aim at Post, Analyst, The Phnom Penh Post, 3 February 2017 http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/pm-takes-aim-post-analyst
7 Hun Sen Threatens Prison for Aggressive NGOs and Journalists, The Cambodia Daily, 7 March 2017 https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/hun-sen-threatens-prison-for-aggressive-ngos-and-journalists-126209/
8 Reporters Vow to Defy Order to Cease Gathering, The Cambodia Daily, 28 May 2015 https://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/reporters-vow-to-defy-order-to-cease-gathering-84492/
9 “Editor, Journalist Charged” Radio Free Asia (9 September 2009) http://bit.ly/2mQYR0g
10 UN Human Rights Committee Concluding Observations on Italy, CCPR/C/ITA/CO/5; UN Human Rights Committee Concluding Observations on the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, CCPR/C/MKD/CO/2.
11 UN Envoy Says Progress Lost with Adhoc Case, The Cambodia Daily, 26 January 2017 https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/un-envoy-says-progress-lost-with-adhoc-case-124076/
12 Student Gets 18 Months for Post, The Phnom Penh Post, 16 March 2016 http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/student-gets-18-months-post
13 See http://bit.ly/2bf14NK 33 http://www.a2i.info.gov.kh; Crane and Sengkong, ‘Access to information law site goes online,’ The Phnom Penh Post, (28 January 2016) http://bit.ly/1TvcBrb
14 Free English Press Masks an Unfair Media, The Cambodia Daily, 10 May 2016 https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/free-english-press-masks-an-unfair-media-112379/
15 Study: Cambodian Media Ownership Concentrated Among Elite, VOA News, 2 February 2017 http://www.voanews.com/a/cambodia-media-ownership-concentrated-among-elite-study-shows/3703907.html
16Government Backs Letter Denouncing Foreign Press, The Cambodia Daily, 9 July 2016 https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/government-backs-letter-denouncing-foreign-press-115222/