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Press less free in '08: monitors

Violence, courts used to silence local press, say media observers.

THE state of the Cambodian media worsened in 2008 due to an increase in threats and violent attacks against journalists, local and international media monitors say.

In its annual press freedom survey released Friday, the US-based Freedom House rated the Kingdom 132 out of 195 countries for press freedom, downgrading it from "partly free" to "not free".

"Cambodia slipped into the ‘not free' category as a result of increased violence against journalists, particularly ahead of the July elections," the organisation said, highlighting the daylight killing of Moneaksekar Khmer journalist Khim Sambo during last year's national election campaign - the first slaying of a journalist since 2003. Cambodia's media was judged "partly free" in both 2006 and 2007.

In advance of World Press Freedom Day Sunday, local organisations also highlighted the Khim Sambo killing, as well as an increase in threats against journalists, as the source of a decline in press freedoms last year.

The Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ) said threats against journalists doubled in 2008 - from seven to 14 - while journalism-related arrests rose from six to 10. CCJ also cited figures from Reporters Without Borders, which rated Cambodia 126 out of 173 countries in 2008, down from 86 in 2007.

The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) said that last year saw 61 human rights abuses against journalists and media workers, including 15 threats, 14 "spurious" arrests, and five defamation and disinformation lawsuits aimed at silencing the media.

In addition to Khim Sambo's killing, CCHR pointed to the June 8 arrest of Dam Sith, Moneaksekar Khmer editor-in-chief and a Sam Rainsy Party election candidate, for reprinting controversial comments about Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.

"The arrest of Mr Dam Sith... was a good example of how political motivations often lie behind charges of defamation and disinformation brought against journalists," the group said.

CCHR also said it has documented eight cases of human rights abuses against journalists so far in 2009, and called on the government to take "appropriate action" to address press freedoms.

Cheam Yeap, a senior lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People's Party, dismissed the findings of international observers, saying the Cambodian government routinely exposed itself to criticism.

"I regret any organisation that scores press freedom in Cambodia poorly while the governments of some other countries do not allow journalists to report anything critical of the government," he said.

"The Cambodian government is wide open for all the people to criticise."

He added, however, that although people had rights and freedoms, those rights were constrained under domestic and international law.

Abuse of the law

Local media observers, however, said freedoms in Cambodia fell well short of those guaranteed in law.

"Press freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution, but in practice journalists still face challenges in reporting about sensitive issues like corruption, land grabbing and high-ranking government officials," said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, a veteran journalist and director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.

He added that although there had been undoubted improvements since the 1990s - when daylight killings were relatively commonplace - the silencing of reporters now took place through the courts.

CCHR President Ou Virak agreed there had been some improvements, but said freedoms had been eroded since the consolidation of power by the ruling CPP after last year's national election.

He also cited more subtle constraints, including the difficulty of obtaining broadcast licences and the increasing use of quasi-legal means to silence the media.

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