Daun Penh district security guards prevented journalists from interviewing land rights activists near Phnom Penh City Hall on Thursday, kicking some of the reporters and activists, attempting to confiscate cameras, and deleting photos.
The violent outburst marked a return to form for the notoriously rough security guards, who had refrained from attacking peaceful protesters in recent months.
About 30 former and current residents of the Boeng Kak neighborhood gathered in front of City Hall on Thursday morning to protest against Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong. They had heard from acquaintances that the governor recently claimed that some Boeng Kak families demanding land titles wanted to keep 100 percent of their respective properties. Mr. Socheatvong, they were told, made the claim during a road inauguration on July 29.
“We came to City Hall to hold a press conference to deny what the governor said on July 29, that we’re asking for 100 percent of our land. We demand only 53 percent of our land. He exaggerated and we wanted to clarify,” Ly Chanary said.
“When we arrived at City Hall, about 30 security guards pushed and hit us to keep us from holding a press conference, and two people were hurt.”
Heng Vichet, a cameraman for Voice of Democracy (VOD), said he was filming the protesters scuffling with the guards when one of the guards threatened to take his camera away unless he stopped shooting. He said he complied and moved about 30 meters down the road, to near the University of Health Sciences, to interview one of the protesters, Im Sreytouch, but was harassed again.
“While I was interviewing Sreytouch about 30 meters away, a group of security guards came and tried to take my camera. But we fought back to keep my camera and ran away,” he said.
VOD reporter Khut Sokun said the guards kicked his legs during the incident, nearly causing him to fall over.
“It is a violation of our rights because we were just doing our jobs to report the story and they came to stop us,” he said.
One of the guards could be heard threatening to attack the journalists who were still standing near the university if they continued to conduct interviews.
“If you do not move, I will beat you and hit you and push you,” he said.
He ordered the other guards to confiscate cameras and delete photos.
Moments later, the guards were seen taking a camera away from one of the Boeng Kak protesters. Veasna Ratha, a monitor for the Housing Rights Task Force, an NGO, said he had given the camera to the protesters to hold so that he could run away from the guards to avoid injury, and that the pictures he had taken had been deleted by the time the camera was returned to him.
The Cambodian Center for Independent Media and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance issued a joint statement condemning the attack on the VOD journalists.
“The security guards have no right to seize journalists’ equipment and to make threats of violence,” the center’s director, Pa Nguon Teang, said in the statement. “I urge the government to use its legitimate powers to ensure that journalists are protected from threats and violence, to respect freedom of the press, and to bring an end to impunity for those who commit these crimes against journalists.”
Municipal spokesman Long Dimanche confirmed that Mr. Socheatvong had made the remarks that sparked the protest. But he insisted that the Daun Penh security guards had only been preventing the protesters from blocking the entrances to City Hall.
“We have no reports of beatings, and we know how to act to keep order in front of City Hall. They cannot sit and protest and block the entrance to City Hall because it is a state institution and serves the people every day,” he said. “When they block the entrance, we have to kick them out.”
Mr. Dimanche also defended the confiscation of cameras.
“We told them to leave, but they did not. So we had to take action to break them up,” he said. “We told them not to have a press conference in front of City Hall.”
He ignored the fact that journalists and protesters had been harassed well away from City Hall.