Civil society organizations called on Cambodian authorities on Tuesday to do more to protect journalists amid an ongoing government crackdown on freedom of expression under the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Nine CSOs, including the International Federation of Journalists and the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), expressed deep concern over what they said is the government’s failure to bring people who have committed crimes against journalists in the Southeast Asian nation to justice.
“We urge the Cambodian authorities to take immediate action to ensure that effective, independent, and transparent investigations into such crimes are conducted and that justice is served,” said the statement.
The groups released their statement to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, which the United Nations created to draw attention to the risks journalists face around the globe. Between 2006 and 2020, more than 1,200 journalists worldwide were killed for reporting the news, according to a U.N. report.
At least 17 journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1994, with nearly all being targeted because of their work, according to the statement. Some of the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.
Ostensibly, Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with a charter proclaiming it a liberal, multiparty democracy. But the government of Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have weakened political opponents, civil society groups, and the independent media in a bid to remain in power. Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 144 out of 180 countries in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
Media professionals, including former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, faced false charges in the run-up to the country’s 2018 general election as part of a government crackdown. Independent news outlets and radio stations were banned, while journalists at other news outlets were purged.
Hun Sen’s government has used the coronavirus pandemic to adopt new restrictions on the dissemination of information and the right to peaceful assembly and association.
“Worryingly, the persecution of and crimes against journalists seem to be on the rise,” said the statement from the nine groups.
More than 80 journalists have been targeted in the last 10 months: 31 were arrested, 20 were physically assaulted, and 16 were threatened, according to CamboJA. Eight other journalists faced judicial harassment, five others were detained for questioning, and one female journalist experienced sexual harassment while doing her job.
“When journalists are targeted for conducting their legitimate reporting activities, freedom of expression is undermined and replaced by the fear that the public will no longer have access to information and that those in power will not be held accountable for their wrongdoings,” the statement said. “In addition, when the government fails to properly investigate and punish crimes against journalists, it sends the message that such crimes are allowed.”
The CSOs urged Cambodian authorities to ensure that effective, independent and transparent investigations into crimes are conducted and that perpetrators are brought to justice.
While journalists are less likely to be killed these days than in the past, the number of bogus lawsuits and physical assaults against reporters seems to be on the rise, said Nop Vy, executive director of CamboJA.
“What I’ve noticed is the persecution of journalists through detentions and arrests,” he said.
Nop Vy cited the case of a court in Koh Kong province giving a two-year jail sentence to a journalist for his coverage of a land dispute following the filing of a lawsuit by Minister of Defense Tea Banh.
Nop Vy urged aggrieved parties to use the country’s Press Law to address complaints against journalists rather than prosecuting them under Cambodia’s criminal code.
The press law “guarantees that journalists won’t be prosecuted under the penal code,” he said.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Wednesday that the ongoing harassment of journalists limits their ability to expose corruption and to hold government officials accountable.
“The culture of impunity has affected the way that journalists do their jobs,” she said. “The journalists will be afraid to reveal the truth.”
The government had yet to issue a response to the statement by the CSOs.
In a statement on International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn said claims about impunity for crimes against journalists were untrue and that Cambodia had never had crimes against journalists.
“We find journalists in Cambodia taking on their job responsibly and improving day by day to ensure they provide accurate and correct information to the public with no political trends,” he was quoted by the Khmer Times as saying.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.