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Free Expression Severely Deteriorated: Groups

Freedoms of expression and the press have been seriously damaged in recent months, which can have a ripple effect throughout the region, rights groups and analysts said recently.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance and other concerned groups sent an open letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen July 17, denouncing a “rapidly and palpably deteriorating environment for free expression in Cambodia.”

The open letter, signed by 12 advocacy groups from across Southeast Asia, marked concerns that political speech and press freedom have been severely restricted after harsh attacks against parliamentarians, advocates, lawyers and journalists over the past year.

SEAPA stressed in the letter that Cambodian leaders and the ruling party must be aware that violations of people’s rights to free expression are ultimately a regional problem and concern.

Roby Alampay, SEAPA’s executive director, told VOA Khmer by phone that over the past year, there have been a lot of worrying trends, which the letter sought to bring to national, regional and international attention.

The 42nd Asean Ministerial Meeting this week will adopt the terms of reference for the formation of an Asean Human Rights Body, to be launched in October, and Southeast Asian nations should take notice of what is happening in Cambodia, he said.

“In anything, awareness of the matter is good,” Alampay said. “At the same time in Cambodia, we want the Cambodians to know that this is something that we are bringing to the attention of the region; they are not alone.”

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and one of the signatories of the open letter, told VOA Khmer in a phone interview that the letter is to address concerns of the advocacy groups in the region about free-expression violations in Cambodia.

The letter was not intended to put pressure on the Cambodian government, but to bring awareness to the government that the measures it has been taking are really restrictions to the freedom of expression, which must be avoided, he said.

“We understand that the oppression of free expression, of whatever sort, makes a negative picture for Cambodia,” he said. “Recently the government has used the court to oppress and threaten its critiques. The court is an issue because it is not independent; it cannot protect people fairly before the law. I think the government is taking advantage of a biased judicial system to oppress its critiques.”

Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst, told VOA Khmer by phone that as Cambodia is one of the signatories of some international laws, including for free expression, Cambodians have an obligation to abide by them.

She added that human rights violations, including freedom of expression, are a regional problem because what happens in one country can create difficulties in neighboring countries. Therefore, countries in the region have the right to raise their concerns.

“Severe human rights violations in a country make its people flee for refuge in other Asean member countries,” she said. “In this case, although human rights violations happen in your country, if we don’t take timely action, the difficulty will spread to other Asean countries.”

SEAPA called for Cambodia’s leadership to demonstrate its commitment to constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression as well as to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory.

As Cambodia is a member of Asean, it must live up to the values and spirit addressed in ASEAN charter: “respect for the fundamental freedoms, promotion and protection of human rights,” the group said.

Violations committed by Cambodia’s leadership and its ruling party against the country’s activists over the past year undermine the values, principles, and directions of the Asean community to which it belongs, the group said.