Despite repeated statements by government officials that freedom of expression is not under attack, several organizations that have seen their leaders detained on defamation charges said Tuesday that their work has been affected by the recent rash of arrests.
At the Beehive 105 FM radio station, Dinn Phanara, the wife of its incarcerated owner Mam Sonando, said the independent station has changed its focus since her husband’s October arrest following a defamation lawsuit filed on behalf of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The station still broadcasts programs by Voice of America and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ Voice of Democracy, which continue covering politics, but news content provided by Beehive’s own reporters steers clear of sensitive issues.
“We try to focus on Buddhist festivals and social things rather than focus on politics,” she said, as dogs slept on the floor of the main lobby at the radio station’s office in Chamkar Mon district.
“We can say we’re not afraid, but we’re trying to avoid anything that will get the radio station shut down,” she said.
“If my husband is released, we will resume normal coverage,” Dinn Phanara added. “But we have to be flexible to the situation.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak both said they were too busy to speak to a reporter. Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana could not be contacted.
About one kilometer away from Beehive, in the CCHR’s Voice of Democracy production room on Street 242, producers and reporters were editing stories on computers and preparing for the night’s broadcast.
Since CCHR President Kem Sokha was arrested on Dec 31 and the center’s Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang, who is the show’s producer, was arrested on Jan 4, the station has been especially careful with its choice of words in stories, senior producer Hang Sobratsavyouth said.
“We are cautious of words that can be misinterpreted,” he said. “We have no concerns, but we do put more effort in editing before going to air.”
Following Kem Sokha’s arrest, staff were forced to cancel a roundtable discussion because Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, left the country, Hang Sobratsavyouth said. Since then, he added, it has been difficult to find participants.
“They say they are busy,” he said. “But the participants of the roundtable discussions are nervous about participating.”
Staff are also worried that the program’s call-in segment, which is broadcast live without editing, could be used to get them in trouble, Hang Sobratsavyouth said.
However, he said staff continue to cover political stories, no matter how sensitive.
In a rundown house several blocks from Beehive, a sign identifies a building near the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum as the headquarters of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association. The sign is put up inside rather than outside, staff said, to avoid problems with police.
Since the association’s president, Rong Chhun, was arrested and detained on Oct 15, the association has had no contact with the Ministry of Education, said Im Onn, a national executive committee member.
The recent arrests have scared teachers who would normally bring concerns and complaints to the association’s attention, which means that the 8,000-member group cannot address them with the ministry, he said.
“There are no complaints at all,” Im Onn said. “The complaints come from the grassroots level, but the teachers are too scared. And communication between the Education Ministry and CITA is completely cut.”
But fellow committee member Him Sokleang said the association is still campaigning for Rong Chhun’s release as well as trying to strengthen its membership.
“We don’t really stay quiet,” she said. “We have called for international help, and locally we also encourage the movement.”
Pok Than, Education Ministry secretary of state, said the ministry has received no reports from the association since the arrest, but added that it received them rarely prior to that anyway.
He also said he was skeptical of reports that teachers were too afraid to voice their concerns.
“I get telephone calls from teachers all the time,” Pok Than said. “The telephone line for teachers is always open for concerns and complaints.”
Strong criticism of the arrests of Rong Chhun and others continued to be raised on Tuesday.
The 63 NGOs, unions and associations that participated in the International Human Rights Day celebration on Dec 10 issued a joint statement. “We are deeply concerned about the affect that this lack of respect for freedom of expression will have on the economy and international reputation of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” it said.
London-based rights group Amnesty International has listed the 10 men against whom defamation lawsuits have been filed by the government or Hun Sen as prisoners of conscience, and appealed to the government for all lawsuits to be dropped.
In addition to Kem Sokha, Pa Nguon Teang, Rong Chhun and Mam Sonando, Amnesty has applied the classification to Community Legal Education Center Director Yeng Virak, Free Trade Union President Chea Mony, Student Movement for Democracy Secretary-General Ir Channa, Cambodian Independent Civil Servant Association president Man Nath, Prince Sisowath Thomico, and Say Bory, an adviser to retired King Norodom Sihanouk.
Regional rights group Forum-Asia has also called on the government to stop arresting human rights workers. “[We] join our Cambodian brothers and sisters and the international community in condemning the recent arrests,” the group, which represents 33 rights groups in 13 Asian countries, said in a statement.
The NGO Alliance for Freedom and Advocacy, representing 36 NGOs working across Cambodia, called on the government to “forgive and free all those innocents described above in the spirit of respecting the Paris Peace Agreements and the constitutional law of Cambodia.”
Government officials have previously defended the lawsuits against the men, saying that many of them relate to allegations concerning the Vietnamese border that could provoke civil unrest.