Media coverage of recent legal actions against government critics has shone an international spotlight on Cambodia, bringing attention that opposition lawmakers and journalists said Wednesday could force the government to reconsider its hard stance against dissent.
The continuing legal ordeals of SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua and other opponents of the ruling CPP have drawn the attention of international media ranging from Australia, to Indonesia, to the United Arab Emirates. The Washington Post, New York Times and BBC have all reported on the recent defamation and disinformation court cases.
The vast majority of the international coverage makes claims of declining press freedom in Cambodia, and some articles have held up Ms Sochua in particular as a protector of freedom of expression.
In a story breathlessly titled “Mu Sochua: One of Cambodia’s Precious Gems,” The Jakarta Post reported that Ms Sochua “cannot be stained by any dirty words, no matter who throws them.”
A recent opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle described her as “one Cambodian leader unwilling to tolerate the repression,” of a “corrupt and authoritarian Cambodian government.”
Political observer Chea Vannath said Wednesday that it was not surprising to see so much coverage of Ms Sochua’s trial. “She’s internationally very well known, for her bravery, her courage…and her position as the former Minister of Women’s Affairs.”
Ms Vannath added that Ms Sochua has been very successful at networking with international women’s groups, particularly in the US.
The media attention could put some pressure on the government, she added.
“The prime minister has said that he would not go with the pressure from the donor countries, but this one is not from the donors,” Ms Vannath said. “Cambodia is struggling to project its image to the world…. I think that this is not the image that we want to have.”
Editor of the Khmer Machas Srok newspaper Chum Sophal, whose publisher Hang Chakra is in jail serving a one-year term on a disinformation conviction, said that the coverage could have a big influence on the government.
“This is creating pressure on the government to reconsider its muzzle against the opposition party and opposition newspapers,” Mr Sophal said Wednesday.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said Wednesday that he hoped foreign media coverage would highlight Cambodian issues internationally. “These stories will help disseminate information to those countries that are stakeholders in Cambodia to resolve the problem; they can prevent the government from becoming a dictatorship,” he said. “The government should read these stories and then correct itself.”
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said Wednesday that the government might be more cautious with legal action while international attention is focused on Cambodia.
“This kind of increased attention of donors and the international community on this issue means that the government may be also very careful with this situation,” he said.
But Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said Wednesday that media coverage alone wouldn’t change the government’s current attitude towards critical voices.
“The more coverage, the better it is for the world to see what really happens in Cambodia, but just media coverage may not make any changes in Cambodia. The government needs other pressure, including from the donor countries,” Mr Chhean Nariddh said.
Government and ruling party representatives, however, dismissed reports from the international press as biased and inaccurate.
“The foreign media just echo one side,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Wednesday. “They must lose credibility-they are not professional.”
He added that foreign journalists do not fully understand the situation in Cambodia, and that the government is just trying to uphold hold the rule of law.
“The lawsuits are not against freedom of expression,” Mr Siphan said. “Lawsuits through the court are the rule of the law. Those people who are against the court are uncivilized.” CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Wednesday that foreign media reports were based on false information.
“It has affected Cambodia’s reputation. Those foreign media, they don’t know about Cambodia,” he said. “We request that foreign media conduct research for publishing stories. They should write balanced stories.”