Painting Cambodia as a shrinking arena for freedom of expression, local NGOs yesterday called on the international community to speak out more forcefully in defense of those persecuted for their views.
At the release of a report on freedom of expression in Phnom Penh yesterday, 17 NGOs, unions and community organizations urged the government and international community to help improve what they called the “perilous” state of freedom of expression and democracy in Cambodia.
Released to coincide with the UN International Day of Democracy, which falls today, the report highlighted cases in which opposition politicians, journalists, human rights workers and other members of the public appeared targeted unfairly for speaking out against the government.
The cases included SRP leader Sam Rainsy and lawmaker Mu Sochua, who both had their parliamentary immunity lifted in 2009 so criminal charges could be laid against them.
The report asked the international to publicly support those who were persecuted by the government. “This support can be an invaluable source of strength and confidence for Cambodians who risk so much in their struggle for the fundamental right of freedom of expression,” the report said.
Concluding that a government’s disregard for freedom of expression was a “grave threat” to Cambodia’s democratic development, the report called on the government to invite the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression to visit and produce a report on Cambodia.
Speaking at a press conference after the release of the report yesterday, however, Pung Chhiv Kek, president of rights group Licadho, said Cambodia should not rely solely on the support of international organizations like the UN.
“We should not rely on international communities…we should rely on our own,” she said.
Rath Roth Money, chair of the Cambodia Construction Trade Union Federation, disagreed, however, saying that the international support was required.
“If the UN’s special representatives can be threatened by the government, what can we, the survivors of the Khmer Rouge era, do?” he asked.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak said it was time for the government to review the structure of its own human rights body–the Cambodian Human Rights Committee.
“I think it is about time the government reviewed the CHRC as a whole, the mandate of the CHRC and [that it has] a look at the structure of their personnel, including the head,” Mr Virak said, referring to committee President Om Yentieng.
Mr Yentieng, who is also chairman of the newly established Anticorruption Unit and an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said he was too busy to comment yesterday. But Mak Sambath, deputy chairman of the committee, said the Cambodian government had never restricted freedom of expression.
“The government has never gagged people’s freedom of expression, but the expression must not affect other people,” he said. “If people’s expression affects others then the law will be implemented. You must understand that there are many public forums conducted every day nationwide and the government does not ban them.”