Censorship Rising as Cambodia Slips Down Press Freedom Index

Media censorship is on the rise in Cambodia and press freedom is in a “critical” state, Reporters Without Borders said in its latest annual press freedom index released on Wednesday.

Highlighting the jailing, intimidation and murder of journalists over the past year, along with the censorship of radio broadcasts, the Paris-based press advocacy group ranked Cambodia 143rd among 179 surveyed countries.

The ranking marked a year-on-year drop of 26 index places for Cambodia—placing it between Bang­ladesh and the Democratic Re­public of Congo—and the country’s worst showing since Report­ers Without Borders launched the annual ranking in 2002.

Finland took over the top spot from Norway, while Eritrea once again came in last place.

“Conditions for the media are critical in Cambodia,” the report states.

“Since 2011, news organizations, in particular independent local and foreign radio stations, have been subjected to a policy of censorship orchestrated by an increasingly ruthless information ministry.”

During nationwide commune elections in June last year, the Min­istry of Information ordered several F.M. stations not to broadcast re­ports of polling station irregularities by Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, on the grounds that they might “imbalance” the vote.

Reporters Without Borders also highlighted the case of independent radio station owner Mam Sonando, who was given a 20-year jail sentence in October on much-criticized char­ges of fomenting a rural secessionist movement, which were widely be­lieved to have been trumped up to si­lence the popular government critic.

“The decline in freedom of information also involved deadly attacks and death threats aimed at journalists who exposed government corruption and illegal activities harmful to the environment,” the report adds.

Despite its sharp drop in ranking, among the steepest on the in­dex, Cambodia still did better than most of its regional neighbors.

Among Asean countries, Vietnam did worst of all, placing 172 on the index. Reporters Without Borders called Vietnam “the world’s second biggest prison for netizens.” China ranked just behind at 173.

In October, the bludgeoned body of Cambodian journalist Hang Serei Odom, who had been investigating reports of illegal logging by local officials, was found stuffed in the trunk of his car in Ratanakkiri province. A military police captain and his wife have been charged with his murder and are awaiting trial.

Nim Chanthara, a CPP lawmaker who sits on the National As­sembly’s Foreign Affairs, Interna­tional Coop­eration and Information and Media Committee, said the government was working to im­prove conditions for the media.

“We pay attention to this issue, that’s why we are trying to get the [Freedom of Information] law for the government to implement,” he said.

However, the CPP-dominated As­sembly summarily rejected a draft of an FOI law proposed by opposition lawmakers. The rejection was the second time in three years that the government has refused to entertain debate on the legislation.

Pressed on the past year’s murder and threats against journalists, Mr. Chanthara said, “We are paying a lot of attention and we are encouraging the radio to broad­cast more information.”

Puy Kea, a board member for the Club of Cambodian Journalists and a correspondent for Kyodo News, said the club recorded seven arrests of journalists in 2012, one more than the previous year. But reported threats and lawsuits against journalist had reduced, he said.

“In general, the freedom of ex­pression in Cambodia was quite good, especially in social media,” he said, calling the murder of Heng Serei Odom “a major exception.”

Voice of Democracy (VOD) ra­dio station director Pa Nguon Teang, however, called 2012 “the worst year” for Cambodian journalists in recent memory.

On the day of the commune elections in June, the Information Min­istry yanked a VOD program about the vote off the air halfway through.

(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)

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