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)