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Cambodia Must End Legal Attacks on Media, Rights Groups Say

FILE - Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, former journalists for U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA), speak to the media in front of the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Oct. 3, 2019.
FILE - Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, former journalists for U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA), speak to the media in front of the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Oct. 3, 2019.

The Cambodian government has come under criticism by rights groups over what they describe as a “relentless attack” on press freedom including arrests, repressive laws and the revoking of media licenses.

A statement released Nov. 2 - the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists - and signed by 57 rights groups and communities, called for an end to attacks on the right of free expression and journalists critical of the Cambodian government.

Cambodia-based news organizations have faced a growing number of legal attacks since 2017, when the government dissolved the only opposition party, harassed local nongovernmental groups, and forced the closure of independent media organizations. Since then, reporters have been arrested for their coverage or accused of espionage and incitement.

The statement lists at least 13 journalists who have faced court complaints for their news coverage and the revocation of four media licenses during the coronavirus pandemic for allegedly sharing fake news.

“In the past years, the Cambodian government adopted a series of repressive laws that have enabled a crackdown on independent media and social media and resorted to provisions in the penal code – in particular articles 494 and 495 – to silence critical reporting and its reporters,” read the statement, referring to the criminal code provisions on incitement.

Nop Vy, who runs the local Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA), said there had been an escalation in attacks, detentions and charges against journalists, especially those who did not promote a pro-government lean in their coverage.

CamboJA and three other organizations released another statement calling for crimes against journalists to end and for the government to investigate long-delayed cases.

The four media associations said that since 1994, at least 15 journalists had been killed in Cambodia and in almost all cases the victims were targeted for their work. Twelve were reporting on sensitive issues such as illegal logging, land grabs or corruption, but that there was not a single conviction in those cases.

“We also observed that the [people] beating or persecuting journalists have never been arrested and brought to stand trial,” said Nop Vy.

While there have been no recent deaths, a growing number of journalists have been arrested on what rights groups say are often questionable charges. Last week, Ros Sokhet, who runs a provincial newspaper, was on trial for Facebook posts about Prime Minister Hun Sen’s succession plans and alleged lack of support for Cambodians struggling to repay debt. The government alleges he was attempting to incite Cambodians to cause “social chaos.”

Sok Oudom, who owns a provincial radio station, went on trial Tuesday for reporting on a contentious land-grab case between local villagers and government officials.

Sovann Rithy, who ran a Facebook-based news outlet, was convicted of incitement in October and given a suspended sentence for reporting on a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he said the government was unable to assist informal workers affected by the pandemic.

Cambodian online journalist Sovann Rithy (Phnom Penh Municipal Police Facebook Page)
Cambodian online journalist Sovann Rithy (Phnom Penh Municipal Police Facebook Page)

Government officials later claimed the prime minister was joking when he suggested motorcycle taxi drivers sell their vehicles to buy food.

Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said Cambodia’s transition to a de facto one-party state in 2018, when the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won all parliamentary seats, had only exacerbated the persecution of journalists

“Independent media are very important for questioning government policies, investigating corruption and malfeasance, and demanding transparency and accountability from the government,” he said in an email.

“No wonder then that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen is continuing the pressure to shut down independent media outlets that dare question his word or policies,” he added.

Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin dismissed the critique from rights groups, accusing them of having a “political agenda” when pointing out the government’s flaws.

“These criticisms and attacks have no legal basis at all. It’s purely an accusation,” he said.

In 2017, the Cambodia Daily newspaper shut down after the government pressured it to pay a $6.3 million tax bill. Two reporters from the Cambodia Daily, Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, are facing charges for interviewing Cambodians on their political preferences in the run-up to the 2017 commune election. Peter has also reported for Voice of America.

The same year, two former reporters with Radio Free Asia, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were arrested and charged with espionage. In 2019, the two were tried in a Phnom Penh court, but rather than deliver a verdict, the judge ordered a reinvestigation of the charges. Two appeals challenging this decision have been shot down by higher courts.

The government alleges the two journalists were sending news reports to Radio Free Asia (RFA) headquarters in Washington, even after the U.S.-based broadcaster ended in-country operations in September 2017. RFA attributed the closure to security reasons and was never ordered by the Cambodian government to end its operation in Cambodia. RFA, like VOA, is part of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM).

Yeang Sothearin, one of the two journalists in the case, said the three-year-long ordeal had severely affected his personal and professional life. He experienced increased anxiety over returning to journalism, he said.

“Even every time we post something on Facebook, we are careful with every word we use, fearing that it will upset [someone], they will accuse us again, and they will persecute us even more,” he said.

This story originated in VOA’s Khmer Service.