Following reports of endemic corruption and suppression of dissent in the Kingdom last year, Cambodia was once again classified by global watchdog Freedom House as “not free” in a generally bleak report released yesterday.
In Freedom of the World 2015, Freedom House’s assessment of the real-world political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by citizens all over the globe in 2014, Cambodia averaged 5.5 out of seven, with one representing the most free and seven the least free.
The total number was derived from the country’s score of six and five in the political rights and civil liberties subcategories, respectively.
“We didn’t see 2014 as a particularly good year in Cambodia,” Freedom House Southeast Asia program officer William Ford said. “The country is rated as one of the most repressive ones in the world, and it has not been free for at least 20 years on Freedom House ratings.”
Rankings are based on 25 detailed indicators, including electoral process, political pluralism and participation, freedom of expression and belief, rule of law, personal autonomy and individual rights.
Although the country’s score remained the same as the previous year, Ford added that significant backsliding on fundamental freedoms, rights to civil engagement and patronage politics shows that the Kingdom is veering off the path of democracy.
“After the events surrounding the 2013 elections, we saw another round of crackdowns on freedom of assembly and expression in the country with the tragedy in Veng Sreng [when at least five protesters were shot dead] … and the imprisonment of the land activists among many others,” he said.
There was, however, some progress, evidenced by the increased political participation among the public – especially among youths and civil society – due to social media proliferation.
Open discussion regarding the new access-to-information law, Transparency International Cambodia executive director Preap Kol said, could also be an indication of some “improvement in the outlook of freedom and rights to information in Cambodia”.
Another area of gain, Ford said, was the National Election Committee’s (NEC) plans to rehabilitate the electoral process.
Cambodia’s two main parties are currently working on a new version of the NEC draft law, which is slated to overhaul the electoral system after allegations of voter fraud surfaced following the national election in 2013.
“It remains to be seen how these changes can break the political impasse and how the NEC can ensure its own independence,” Ford said.
NEC secretary-general Tep Nytha replied by saying that it’s impossible for the NEC to be wholly independent, but the organisation is striving to implement the electoral law fairly and to the best of its abilities.
“We can say that the NEC is fair but we could not say that it’s 100 per cent independent, because its members are chosen by both the CPP and CNRP,” Nytha told the Post. “But even if that is the case, if we find any mistakes, we make sure to deliver punishments following to the law.”
According to Freedom House’s findings, despite these developments, there has also been growing frustration on the opposition CNRP’s inability to acknowledge the needs of its constituents in favour of their own politically vested interests.
But CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said that due to the “harsh” political climate, the opposition has been forced to take smaller steps towards change.
“We have no reliable institutions that allow the opposition to perform their duties … because when we start raising concerns, we receive threats, our lawmakers are imprisoned and the situation is just getting worse,” Chhay said.
To improve the status of freedom in Cambodia, Ford recommended that the online space be kept open and be free from repressive laws.
“The prospect of passing the access-to-information law … could be hampered by the prospect of passing the cybercrime and telecommunication laws in [their] current form and without proper consultation with relevant stakeholders,” Kol agreed.
Ford said it’s premature to predict what the status of freedom will be in Cambodia in 2015, but forecasts look grim if recent rhetoric is any indication, especially following the events of Monday, when convictions against seven well-known Boeung Kak lake activists and a monk were upheld by the Appeals Court.
“It’s maybe too early to tell, but it’s not wholly optimistic, and it seems that the country might be heading in the wrong direction,” Ford said.
Multiple phone calls and messages to Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith and various CPP spokesmen were not returned as of press time.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA