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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Govt campaign turns back the clock on press freedom

Govt campaign turns back the clock on press freedom

090730_02
A man walks past newsstands on Street 51 in Phnom Penh.

PRESS freedom is in its worst state in Cambodia since the early 1990s, say reporters for the country's independent and opposition newspapers, who argue that the current crackdown against government critics risks bringing the country full circle to the repressive environment of the 1980s.

Despite having a press that is freer than Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, journalists say the current campaign against "disinformation" - which has already forced the closure of one paper and imprisoned the publisher of another - could set the country back 15 years.

"I used to write 100 percent of the truth, but now I've reduced it to about 30 percent," said Tes Vibol, the publisher of Khmer Student News, an independent and self-funded weekly newspaper.

Tes Vibol said he had been sued before, but that the courts had always cleared him of the charges because his stories were fair and objective.
"Those charges were all dropped because I had documentary evidence," he said.

Curbing 'misinformation'
The government's recent crackdown has netted some large catches. On July 10, opposition daily Moneaksekar Khmer ceased publication after its
publisher and editor-in-chief, Dam Sith, was charged with defamation and apologised to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hang Chakra, the publisher of the remaining opposition daily, Khmer Machas Srok, languishes in prison after being convicted on similar charges.

The opposition daily Sralanh Khmer was neutralised during a similar crackdown in 2006, when its editor, Thach Keth, switched its allegiance to the government.

Officials claim that all three papers were guilty of publishing material that defamed senior government officials or otherwise spread false information.

Sek Rady, the editor of New Liberty News, which restarted publication in April after a long hiatus, said the current media environment was no better than when he entered the industry in 1995.

"Now it is difficult to express ideas that criticise the government - not only for journalists, but also for citizens," he said.

Khmer Machas Srok reporter Boay Roeuy said he now lives with daily worries about his security and fears that the opposition press will disappear, but he vowed to continue reporting as objectively as possible.

"I will not abandon my work as a reporter for the opposition media because I want to inform people, as well as the top leaders of the government," he said.

A free press arrived in Cambodia virtually overnight with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in October 1991 and the subsequent arrival of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia.

While the coming of the UN mission prompted a flowering of media freedom, it also brought the means to curb it: Articles 62 and 63 of the UNTAC Criminal Code, designed to guide the country through its post-conflict transition, have been used to prosecute recent defamation cases, raising questions of whether the government's commitment to freedom of the press was ever more than skin-deep.

Shallow roots
Lem Piseth, a former Radio Free Asia journalist who now edits the online Free Press Magazine from Norway, said that even before the current crackdown, the country had been "moving steadily towards the restrictions on the free press that existed under the communist regime before 1993".

As a reporter, Lem Piseth knew he had crossed a line when his two young children roused him on the morning of April 10, 2008, to show him six AK-47 rounds they had found outside the gate to his rented house in Battambang province.

During the previous year, Lem Piseth claims to have received a series of threatening text messages, phone calls and letters from unknown senders, but it was the bullet incident that eventually forced him to flee the country.

The incident followed his investigation of a drug trafficking and murder case with alleged links to high-ranking officials, but he claims the threatening phone calls and letters started earlier, with a series of broadcasts on illegal deforestation in Kampong Thom province allegedly involving close allies of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

"The new threat with bullets worried me constantly, and I admit that I lost all courage as a strong reporter," he said.

"Working as an investigative journalist in Cambodia is not easy," he said.

Cycles of freedom
Lao Mong Hay, a researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, said the overall pattern since 1993 had been one of "overall decline", with "spurts of freedom over short periods of time".

The period to 1996, he said, saw greater degrees of press freedom than today, despite being marked by more acts of violence against
journalists.

"The government is now much less tolerant of the diversity of opinion, especially of criticism. The loss of another newspaper is ... another fetter for its activities," he said.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, also spoke of the "cycle of freedom" that has marked the years since 1993, but he expressed optimism that, as with previous crackdowns, the country was nearing the bottom of the "curve", and that the long-term trends were positive.

But he said that any press environment that can swing so wildly between freedom and repression could not be described as truly free.

"People can easily be jailed. This would be ridiculous in the US or anywhere in Europe," he told the Post.

He said that there is no guarantee that the current crackdown will end, especially if the government manages to cripple the opposition press altogether.

"If it continues, it could reach a point of no return, and that will ultimately mean that there are enough mechanisms to silence just about anybody," he said.

"The question is when it will reach the point of no return."

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