Representatives of civil society and rights groups asked the government to not instinctively reject a report issued earlier this week by rights group Licadho about the condition of pregnant women and mothers in prison.
The report, released as a video on November 25, showed the difficulties faced by pregnant women in prison, who said they often had no access to medical facilities nor were they provided with nutritious food, clean water and other basic necessities.
However, a day later, the General Department of Prisons was quick to dismiss the report, calling it a “one-sided opinion.” Licadho is one of the few NGOs allowed to enter prisons to provide medical and social assistance to inmates.
Rights groups said the government should be more open to human rights violations uncovered by NGOs and use them to issue corrective measures, rather than dismiss them without consideration and investigation.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said the government was once again looking in the other direction when a human rights NGO was highlighting a serious issue. He said rejecting a report on rights violations without a fair investigation was now routine for the government.
“[T]he government doesn't have good answer and reason why they have done this thing so instead they play attack the messenger and goes to intimidation as well,” he said.
Preap Kol, who heads corruption watchdog Transparency International Cambodia, said the government may want to gloss over such reports, but that the findings remained in the minds of Cambodians. So, it would be preferable to address these concerns rather than dismiss them, he said.
“They can’t just deny every report,” Preap Kol said. “Citizens would still question them. So, I think it would be better if they initiate a study or research to back up [their denial].”
Earlier in the year, Licadho, along with land rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, had released a report on rights violations linked to the exponential growth in microfinance loans, especially to land tenure security.
At the time, the government and other institutions were again quick to reject the report, accusing the rights group of releasing inaccurate information. The two groups were also invited for a meeting to the Council of Ministers to discuss the report. Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the meeting was an attempt to discuss the report and not to intimidate the rights groups.
“We just want to have discussion on what are the official statistics,” he said. “It is their business to report anything. But if the numbers are made up, it is fake news.”
The Cambodian government routinely dismisses concerns raised by civil society groups, human rights NGOs and worker unions, often accusing them of attempting to foment dissatisfaction among Cambodians. The General Department of Prisons said Licadho’s findings were inflammatory and not reflective of the reality of Cambodia’s penal institutions.
However, Licadho’s Am Sam Ath said the video was meant to show people, especially women, the difficulties faced by inmates living in prison, with the hope that it deterred criminal activity.
The video was produced and released on the first day of “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence,” an annual international campaign for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.