Group Raises Cambodian Press Ranking to ‘Partly Free’

US-based non-profit organization Freedom House has raised Cambodia’s freedom of the press status from “not free” to “partly free” due to changes to the de­fa­mation law and a reduction in ha­rassment of journalists, according to a report issued Monday.

The report, which precedes today’s UN World Press Free­dom Day, points to Cambodia as a bright spot for worldwide journalistic freedom, which according to Freedom House “suffered continued global decline in 2006.”

Cambodia’s neighbors Burma, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet­nam were all listed as “not free” in the report.

“The Cambodian media environment improved in 2006 as a result of changes to the defamation law and a continued decline in harassment and attacks on the press,” Freedom House said.

In May 2006, the National As­sembly passed an amendment to the Untac penal code abolishing prison sentences for the crime of defamation. However, the Assem­bly set fines of be­tween $242 and $2,428 for de­famation, which remains in the criminal code.

Not everyone agreed with Free­dom House’s upbeat assessment.

“[Press freedom] is still the same, just as I am still a victim,” said Thach Keth, publisher of the pro-SRP newspaper Sralanh Khmer, who was charged in February with disinformation for allegedly insulting Phnom Penh Municipal Court Director Chiv Keng.

The far stiffer law on disinformation has been regularly em­ploy­ed against journalists since the government removed prison time from the defamation law.

Keo Sothea, publisher of the pro-Norodom Ranariddh Party newspaper, Voice of Khmer Youth, also disagreed with Free­dom House’s assessment.

“It is freer for some newspaper groups, but stricter for the news groups that are opposed to the government,” he said.

Pen Samithy, editor in chief of Rasmei Kampuchea Daily newspaper and president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said that in 2006 there were six cases of reporters being threatened and seven cases of reporters being charged with either defamation or disinformation.

Press freedom can still improve in Cambodia, he said, adding “2006 is better than previous years.”

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Cambodia’s journalists have more freedom than any other country in Southeast Asia.

“[Journalists] have the rights to criticize officials from the top level to the bottom,” he said. “All newspapers have the right to talk equally, regardless if they are the opposition newspapers or not.”

Teruo Jinnai, country representative for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organi­zation, said he agreed with the Freedom House rating.

“2006 was the worst year for journalists in the world. Over 150 journalists were killed worldwide, but these things don’t happen in Cambodia,” he said. Only last month, Voice of Khmer Krom newspaper publisher Pov Sam Ath was found strangled and stuffed inside a suitcase. Police say the killing was linked to a personal dispute.

Although prison sentences were removed from the defamation law, there are other laws that can imprison journalists, said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.

“Journalists can be charged with many other crimes such as disinformation and incitement to commit crime and incitement to discriminate,” he said.

“I agree that it is partly free, but not free,” he said of the Freedom House assessment.


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