Freedom of Speech in Steep Decline, NGOs Say

Defamation suits against opposition party members, the closure of the venue for a forum on housing rights, and the arrest of a student for painting anti-government slogans on his home are all evidence of deteriorating freedom of speech in Cambodia, a coalition of local NGOs said in a joint statement released Thursday.

The statement, signed by representatives of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the Community Legal Education Center, the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association, the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Association, and Licadho, described the current situation as “perilous.”

“The pattern of complaints of defamation, disinformation and incitement filed by high-ranking officials, and the intimidation of residents at Boeng Kak lake, poses a serious threat to the right to freedom of expression in Cambodia,” the statement read.

The NGOs cited four recent defamation, disinformation or incitement complaints filed against SRP lawmakers, and the police closure on Monday of Boeng Kak’s Lazy Fish guesthouse, which was scheduled to host a housing rights forum Friday.

The statement also pointed to the June 6 defamation conviction of Boeng Kak lake resident Soung Sophorn for spray painting the Khmer slogans “Against dictatorial policy” and “People suffer because the government bows down to the company” on the walls of his family home. He was fined $1,250 for the offense.

According to the NGO statement, “These actions…were clearly unjustified and aimed at suppressing the freedom of Boeng Kak residents to discuss and express opinions about the pending loss of their homes.”

The Shukaku Inc firm, which is owned by a ruling-party senator, has been given a 99-year lease to fill in the lake and build high end residential and commercial units on the land, a massive project that requires the eviction of some 4,000 families.

Chheat Sreang, project coordinator for freedom of expression at CCHR, said Friday that he has been paying close attention to recent developments.

“It’s clear to us that the situation is deteriorating right now,” Mr Sreang said. “The government is systematically suppressing the view from the other side.”

He added, “We could also cite another event as well: today’s denial of the protest event,” referring to the refusal of Phnom Penh municipal officials to allow the Cambodian Confederation of Unions to protest outside the National Assembly during the visit of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

“The reason the government gave to the union is not reasonable. It’s not acceptable,” said Mr Sreang.

On Thursday, Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong said permission for the protest was denied to keep up appearances. “We shouldn’t have the image of protests,” he said. “It will affect the country’s dignity, and protests won’t resolve the border issue.”

Mr Sreang said that Cambodians have a responsibility to pay closer attention to the actions of the government, and exercise their right to free speech

“It’s really up to the Cambodian people…. Otherwise no one else, other than the people themselves, would give them the rights if they don’t speak out,” he said.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Friday that there is “nothing seriously wrong,” with the state of freedom of expression in Cambodia.

He referred in particular to the defamation lawsuit filed by Prime Minister Hun Sen against SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua in response to Ms Sochua’s own lawsuit against the prime minister.

“Normally, banging a drum with one hand does not sound so loud. If Chumteav Mu Sochua did not sue Samdech [Hun Sen] first, then Samdech would not lodge it back against her. Samdech is a human being,” he said, referring to the prime minister.



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