Cambodia’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders’ annual international press freedom list, released yesterday, rose eight places this year, despite a spate of recent court actions against opposition journalists and government critics.
In the Paris-based watchdog’s 2009 list, Cambodia ranked as the 117th freest press out of 175 countries, an improvement on its place at 126 out of 173 countries last year.
Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia Desk at the organization, said yesterday that Cambodia’s improved ranking is more about what hasn’t happened in the last year, than what has.
“It is mainly because of last year’s killing of the opposition journalist,” Mr Brossel said by e-mail yesterday, referring to the July 2008 murder of journalist Khim Sambo, who was shot and killed along with his son.
“Several journalists were detained also [at the] beginning of 2008. Since September 2008, we have been monitoring mainly legal harassment,” Mr Brossel said. “Several others countries [Thailand, Morocco, Georgia or Venezuela] faced a real deterioration,” he said by way of explaining the relative nature of Cambodia’s improved ranking.
Cambodia’s rating is based on a compilation of questionnaires completed by three journalists based in the country, as well as Reporters Without Border’s own rating, according to Mr Brossel. The four-page survey, covering the year ending in September, asked reporters questions on topics including censorship, state ownership of media, legal action against journalists, as well as physical violence.
In recent months, Cambodia has seen the imprisonment of opposition newspaper publisher Hang Chakra on disinformation charges, as well as defamation convictions of other reporters and editors.
Pen Samitthy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists and editor-in-chief of the Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper, said that he was surprised by the change in Cambodia’s ranking, given recent legal actions against journalists.
“There are some events that have affected the standard of the freedom of expression in Cambodia,” he said. “We know there’s one editor now in jail, and of course when a journalist was put in jail like that, this same international organization, they criticized and they judged the standard of the country.”
When Mr Chakra began his term in June, Reporters Without Borders called for his immediate release.
Political observer Chea Vannath pointed out that the rankings are relative, and that events in other countries—like the crackdown on journalists during the Iranian election—could influence Cambodia’s position.
In fact, Cambodia’s ranking has fluctuated from year to year with changing international conditions. Last year’s ranking was the lowest for the country since the Paris-based organization published its first annual list in 2002; this year’s ranking is the second lowest.
The highest that Cambodia has ever ranked was at number 81 of 166 countries surveyed in 2003—that was also the only time that the country has ranked in the top half of the list.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the government isn’t concerned about rankings created by international organizations. “We understand that our freedom of the press is a lot better than the other countries. We do have a press law already, and we do have institutions for training journalists. We don’t have prior censorship before publication and we do allow international press to open up offices here,” he said.