As journalists around the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, international and local monitoring groups alike said that Cambodia’s media are increasingly muzzled.
On Sunday, Dam Sith, the publisher of Moneaksekar Khmer newspaper, recalled his arrest in June 2008 after printing comments by SRP leader Sam Rainsy about a senior CPP member’s alleged involvement in the Khmer Rouge regime.
A month after Mr Dam Sith’s arrest, his Moneaksekar Khmer colleague, Khim Sambor, was murdered along with his 21-year-old son. To date, no arrests have been made in the killings.
“I think that there is no respect [for journalists] and no freedom of expression, because of the pressure applied to journalists and the lack of transparency in the judicial system,” Mr Dam Sith said by telephone Sunday.
The most recent assessment by international watchdog Reporters Without Borders includes Cambodia among countries that “waver between repression and liberalization, where the taboos are still inviolable and the press laws hark back to another era.”
The group has downgraded Cambodia’s press freedom rating to 126th in the world for 2008, down from 85th in 2007. The drop, according to the organization’s website, comes “as a result of a journalist’s murder that was probably instigated by a police officer, and the fact that control of the media was stepped up for the parliamentary elections.”
Another international group, the US-based Freedom House, lowered Cambodia’s press freedom rating from “partly free” to “not free.” A press release accompanying the release of the ranking Friday said Cambodia’s press freedom rating had dropped, “because of increased violence against journalists.”
Representatives from two local human rights groups also expressed dismay Sunday over the state of freedom of expression in Cambodia.
“Freedom of expression is in the law only, but in practice we have some limits,” said Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho. “Freedom means that you can talk freely, that you’re not afraid of being threatened.”
She said her organization recorded 28 threats or legal actions against journalists between January 2008 and March 2009. According to a Licadho briefing paper released over the weekend, those incidents ranged from illegal loggers in Kompong Thom province injuring a reporter with a slingshot to the Ministry of Information shutting down a radio station in Kratie province.
One problem facing Cambodian media is that the judicial system rarely applies the press law that was passed in 1995, instead turning to the criminal code instituted by the UN transitional authority in 1992, Ms Kek Galabru said. The Untac code allows individuals to be sent to jail for so-called “disinformation.” The similar offense of defamation in the Untac law no longer involves prison sentences, as it once did, but convicted offenders can still see jail time if they can’t pay hefty fines handed down by the court.
However, Ms Kek Galabru said that the press law has its own problems, including an article that forbids publication of information “which may affect national security and political stability.”
“These words are too vague,” she said.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Sunday that Cambodia is also missing two key pieces of legislation. “A freedom of information law and an anticorruption law would be significant in holding the government accountable. They are overdue,” he said.
He added that Cambodia needs to do a better job of investigating and prosecuting threats and violence against journalists, including the murder of Mr Khim Sambor and his son.
“It becomes state policy in not fulfilling its promises to protect journalists,” Mr Ou Virak said. “Prosecution is a good start. When there are threats against journalists, the government needs to take the case seriously and find the perpetrators.”
National Police spokesman Kieth Chantharith declined to comment about the investigation into the slayings, and deferred questions to the Interior Ministry’s penal department.
That department’s director, Mok Chito, also declined comment Sunday, and referred questions to the Phnom Penh municipal police department. Deputy Municipal Police Chief Hy Pro said he was in Battambang and directed questioning to Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth, who could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Minister of Information and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that compared to its neighbors, Cambodia’s journalists had more freedom.
“Comparing to most Asean national members, we are more free,” he said.
When asked to compare Cambodia with Western nations, he made an apparent reference to the 2005 imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to reveal her sources in an investigation into the leaking of the identity of an agent of the US Central Intelligence Agency, which is a criminal offense in the US.
“We never force the newspapers; we never threaten people to reveal their sources and send them to jail,” Mr Khieu Kanharith added.