Cambodia's press freedom ranking has fallen four spots compared to last year, to 132 out of 180 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) latest World Press Freedom Index.
The 2017 index, published yesterday, cited the high-profile killing of political commentator Kem Ley as an attempt to gag the media and critics. Ley was gunned down in a Phnom Penh service station last July, days after the release of an explosive Global Witness report mapping out Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family’s web of questionable business ties, a report Ley had commented on in the media.
Benjamin Ismaïl, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said that increasing attacks against the media, especially in relation to the Global Witness report, had fostered an environment of intimidation and violence that can fuel self-censorship.
“More and more Asian governments deliberately confuse the rule of law with rule by law,” he said. “By adopting increasingly draconian laws, governments with authoritarian tendencies hope to justify their attempts to gag the media and critics.”
He said the use of criminal defamation charges could also hinder journalism, and that there needed to be a “free and safe environment” for journalists to work. Reporters covering illegal logging in Cambodia were often threatened – though some reporters aimed to extort loggers, he acknowledged.
Nonetheless, Ismaïl said, “No physical reprisals against any media outlets can be justified; sometimes authorities use examples of bad ethics to justify the attacks on other media.”
Pa Nguon Teang, of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, agreed there was an oppressive trend, with government officials often attacking outlets like Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and recently excluding them from a media gathering attended by Hun Sen.
“I think the culture of impunity can continue to frighten journalists,” he said, referring to past cases where no action was taken against security guards who had beaten reporters. “The government classifies a number of media institutions as the enemy.”
The index comes in the wake of RFA journalist Chun Chanboth being called to court for allegedly concealing his identity in order to interview a political prisoner in jail.
In Southeast Asia, Cambodia was edged out by Indonesia, ranked 124th; the Philippines, ranked 127th; and Myanmar, ranked 131st. However, it beat Laos (170) and Vietnam (175), which were classed as “media black holes”.
Author Sebastian Strangio, a former Post reporter who recently wrote about the Kingdom’s media landscape in the Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia, said the country’s “moderately higher ranking is due to the fact that it has few formal restrictions on the press”.
“Compare this to a one-party state like Vietnam, where the press is an explicit monopoly of the Vietnamese Communist Party, it’s not hard to see how Cambodia gets a relatively higher ranking,” he said in an email. “Informally, however, there are serious restrictions on freedom of the press in Cambodia. Self-censorship is rife. Reporters working for Khmer-language outlets are aware of what can and can’t be published, and who can and can’t be criticized.”
He added that the major radio stations and TV networks not owned by the state were almost exclusively in the hands of the ruling party’s cronies.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson echoed that sentiment, saying in an email there was little wonder the Cambodian people increasingly sought out news via Facebook.