Organization Warns of ‘Crackdown’ on Free Speech

Rights Groups, Opposition Claim Kingdom Could Become a “One-Party State”

Villagers from Siem Reap province’s Chi Kreng district, Boeng Kak lake residents in Phnom Penh, striking garment workers, opposition parliamentarians and the UN have all been victims of a “systematic crackdown” on freedom of expression, according to a report released this weekend by the human rights group Licadho.

“As the government has consolidated power, it is growing increasingly intolerant of criticism […]. The end result is that Cambodians are being prevented from participating in their own democracy,” the report said.

The report, covering a six-month period between April 1 and Sept 30, includes case studies on dozens of alleged infringements against free speech.

Licadho President Pung Chhiv Kek said in an e-mail yesterday that the group had observed a marked decline in the protection of freedom of expression in 2009 and thus wanted to monitor this year’s events closely.

“We were concerned that 2010 would be just as bad, and we wanted to systematically monitor the situation,” she said.

The report reiterates the long standing claim of human rights monitors that the country’s court system has become a tool for the rich and powerful.

“The courts are not instruments of law, but of power, influence, money and party allegiance,” it said.

The introduction this month of a new penal code did not offer much hope for improvement, according to Licadho’s report, which outlined five new criminal offenses that could be used to hinder free expression.

“When misused […] the code is a weapon capable of inflicting severe damage on Cambodians’ expressive rights […]. Freedom of expression cannot flourish in this environment,” Ms Kek said.

Government spokesmen were unavailable yesterday. However Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan earlier this month responded to Licadho’s criticism of the new penal code by telling the group to file a complaint with the courts.

“If they think a law abuses the people or is unconstitutional, they have to file to court. Complaining does not help…. It just makes a noise,” he said at the time.

Some of the highest-profile cases detailed in the report involve opposition parliamentarians, including SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, whose conviction for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen was upheld by the Supreme Court in June.

International organizations and even foreign countries were not immune from being intimidated by the government, the report said.

“The current crackdown on freedom of expression is expanding to include the international community, and encroaching upon donor nations’ ability to offer constructive criticism of Cambodian government policies,” it said.

Last month, Cambodia ordered the closure of the local UN human rights office after Foreign Minister Hor Namhong described its director Christophe Peschaux as a “spokesman for the opposition party.”

SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said yesterday that the party was concerned by apparent efforts to restrain free speech in the Kingdom and worried about Cambodia becoming a one-party state. Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak agreed.

If the government does not ease up on those who express critical points of view, “the danger is we could become a one-party state like Vietnam or China,” he added.

 

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