In a scathing attack on independent media in Cambodia which it claimed were abusing their freedoms, the country’s foreign ministry last month claimed that the press was so free that it was able to report false accusations against the government unimpeded.
The ministry cited the country’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) annual press freedom index as evidence it was among the most liberal media environments in Southeast Asia.
But in the group’s latest World Press Freedom index, released last week, Cambodia dropped four places compared with 2016, behind Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.
Benjamin Ismail, head of the Asia Pacific region for RSF, said the group had placed Cambodia under “close watch” due to the intimate relationship between the country’s ruling elite and its media institutions.
“This concentration of media and the corollary relationship of the owners of the biggest media groups with power, as well as the current level of violence (mostly verbal when it comes to politicians but also physical when it concerns environmental journalism and private companies) constitute the unfortunately most efficient mix to produce self-censorship in the media-community,” Ismail said in an email.
He added that verbal attacks by members of the ruling family of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen following the release of a Global Witness report into the family’s business holdings had contributed to the decision, as had the killing of prominent political commentator Kem Ley.
“Government hostility towards independent media increased in 2016. Journalists can pay a high price for covering illegal logging or trafficking in fish or other natural resources. In terms of legal infringements of press freedom, defamation and damaging the country’s image are the most frequently used charges,” Ismail said.
“The addition of an endemic and significant level of corruption in Cambodian institutions, results in a difficult situation for news providers, who face many threats (professional, legal, or physical) when they try to play their role of working for the public interest,” he added.
However, Ouk Kimseng, an undersecretary of state at the information ministry, denied the accusations.
“I think those who make the report keep writing whatever they think, but they do not know the facts of what is actually happening in Cambodia, in reality,” he said.
According to official figures, there are some 800 newspapers and 70 online news portals in Cambodia, as well as at lease 22 television stations, 330 radio stations and 38 journalist associations in the country.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, expressed “deep concern” over the RSF findings.
“Some local journalists seem to be reluctant and fearful to report or produce news stories about sensitive and controversial issues, such as corruption, illegal logging, land grabbing, and other social injustices committed by people in powers and well-connected business elites,” he said.
At least 12 journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1992, while many others have faced legal action over their reporting.
Kimseng, however, said that “Cambodia has tried its best to improve the space of freedom for its press sector,” urging people to speak to Cambodian journalists directly to learn about the “real situation”.
RSF’s press freedom index is based on questionnaires completed by Cambodian reporters working in the country.