Cambodia’s media is less free than it was a year ago, according to a global report published by Washington-based think tank Freedom House to coincide with the 20th World Press Freedom Day today.
The downgrading comes in the same week that a court investigation into the murder of a reporter in Ratanakkiri province was deemed inadequate, and as the perpetrators of 10 other murders of journalists since 1993 continue to evade justice.
In its Freedom of the Press 2013 report, released Wednesday, Freedom House said Cambodia remained “not free” for journalists. Out of 191 countries, Cambodia shared the 149th spot with Cameroon, Madagascar and Morocco.
Freedom House scores countries based on the legal, political and economic environment in which journalists operate, with a score of zero representing a completely unencumbered press.
Cambodia scored 66—compared with a score in 2012 of 63, when it ranked 144 out of 197 countries. The legal environment has worsened by 2 points and the political environment worsened by 1 point, the report says.
The worsening was “due to an increase in the number of journalists behind bars” including the notable case of independent radio station owner Mam Sonando, who was convicted for mounting a so-called secessionist movement and sentenced to 20 years in prison in October. The report also notes a significant rise in threats and physical violence used against the press, including the “first murder of a reporter since 2008,” Freedom House said.
That reporter was Hang Serei Odom, who worked in Ratanakkiri province for the Virakchun Khmer Daily newspaper and was found bludgeoned to death and stuffed into the trunk of his car in September. A panel of three judges this week appointed a new investigating judge after the swift probe that led to the trial of military police Captain An Bunheng and his wife, Sim Vy, 35, did not turn up enough evidence.
According to family and colleagues, Hang Serei Odom had exposed officials’ involvement in forestry crimes shortly before he attended a drinking session in Banlung City, after which he was never seen alive again.
“Whenever violence on journalists still exists, the freedom of the press will worsen and the lives of journalists are still in danger when they do their work,” said Hang Serei Odom’s widow, Im Chanthy, 21, on Thursday.
Ms. Chanthy said she thought the lack of justice for journalists who had been killed in the past had contributed to creating the circumstances in which her husband was brutally murdered.
“I don’t want to see or hear about more journalists targeted for murder,” she said.
The narrow scope of the initial investigation has drawn criticism. It concluded that the accused, who had no known motive to murder the reporter they knew well, acted on their own.
The case of Hang Serei Odom is a reminder of past murders of journalists, where lackluster investigations have suggested impunity for the perpetrators.
In 2008, Khim Sambo, 47, a veteran reporter for the SRP-aligned Moneaksekar Khmer newspaper, was gunned down along with his 21-year-old-son, Khat Sarinpheata, near Olympic Stadium in the weeks running up to the national elections.
Just two weeks before the murder, Khim Sambo had written a story headlined “A powerful person in an armed force who lost in gambling and couldn’t borrow casino money arrests the manager as a hostage,” a story which reportedly alluded to late national police Chief Hok Lundy.
No arrests have ever been made in the double murder.
Khim Sambo’s brother, Khim Rorang, said Thursday that the family had given up hope of ever learning the identity of the two men on the motorcycle that gunned down the father and son.
“We have been awaiting justice, but it seems like our hope has been thrown in the river,” Mr. Rorang said.
“In other countries, suspects who just throw a black plastic bag on the street are apprehended. But here, two people were shot and killed in broad daylight in the heart of the city and the authorities are not able to find the gunmen.”
Another case in 1994 bears a striking resemblance to last year’s murder of Hang Serei Odom.
Sao Chan Dara, a correspondent in Kompong Cham province for papers including Koh Santepheap and Preap Noam Sar, was last seen with the storied former military official Sath Soeun, popularly known by his nickname Soeun Phen Dai, or “Master of the Earth,” at a restaurant, before being found shot dead not long after writing about official involvement in timber and rubber deals.
Colonel Sath Soeun was arrested over the murder of the journalist but was never charged.
During the trial this year over Hang Serei Odom’s murder, the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court heard that Sath Soeun—who in the intervening years was found guilty and jailed for attempted murder in another case—was in the province and had invited Hang Serei Odom to the restaurant where he was last seen alive on September 9.
In all, 11 journalists have now been murdered in Cambodia since 1993 without any prosecutions being successfully brought. Human rights groups say many others have been threatened, intimidated or attacked.
Chan Mony—a 44-year-old journalist of 25 years experience—lost the use of his left eye after he was caught up in the 1997 grenade attack on a gathering of Sam Rainsy supporters outside the old National Assembly in Phnom Penh. More than a dozen people were killed and more than 100 injured, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the attack.
Mr. Mony said Thursday that despite his injury—which is likely to mean his left eye must be removed to avoid an infection spreading to his right eye—he felt that things were improving for journalists.
“If we compare to the past, press freedom today is good because journalists can write and report stories freely,” Mr. Mony said.
“But there are still some negative impacts on journalists and media organizations since there are a number of powerful or rich individuals who have done bad things who hate media people and intimidate or sue journalists to silence their reporting.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the Freedom House report as outdated and said it was “not a quality report.”
“Everyone in Cambodia has the freedom to write,” he said.
“We work for the pleasure of the people. We do not work for Freedom House. Cambodians enjoy their freedom of expression.”
He said all the unsolved murders of journalists were still open and promised the police would eventually catch the perpetrators.
“They can run but they can’t hide. When the society is more sophisticated and more open, they will be behind bars,” Mr. Siphan said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said in a letter that the impunity around the murders of journalists threatened to turn back Cambodia’s progress in press freedom.
“This lack of prosecution of criminals and the culture of impunity has had a domino effect not only on journalists but also their sources who refrain from talking about sensitive issues such as corruption, illegal logging, land grabbing and other human rights abuses committed by rich and powerful people,” Mr. Chhean Nariddh said.
“To ensure that this progress will not be reversed, the government needs to bring perpetrators against journalists to justice and prevent future attacks on the media, both physically and legally,” he added.