For months now, Daun Penh district security forces, identifiable by their dark blue uniforms, black motorbike helmets and merciless truncheon swinging, have been unleashed on protesters, opposition and otherwise, as the all-too-willing enforcers of government-approved crackdowns.
But as district forces have begun targeting more journalists during their attacks in recent days, the government is speaking out for the first time against them, though without condemning their earlier violence against the opposition and other civilians.
In a statement released yesterday, the Ministry of Information condemned police and private security forces for “threatening, intimidating, seizing material and insulting” local and foreign journalists.
“[The ministry] considers those acts a serious violation of press freedom in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” says the statement, which has no signature but bears the stamp of the ministry.
“The ministry would like all … relevant parties to cooperate and implement the rights, role and duty in proper accordance with the principles of a multi-party democracy as stated in the Constitution,” the ministry wrote.
The condemnation follows the violent suppression of Labour Day demonstrations on Thursday. At least three journalists were among those injured by Daun Penh district security guards, according to the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia.
The following day, the first of the council election campaign period, several journalists were again targeted.
One of those injured in the violence was Voice of Democracy reporter Lay Samean, who suffered a broken cheekbone after being beaten by security.
Speaking yesterday, VOD media director Nop Vy said the ministry statement was nothing more than rhetoric.
“I think that if the government really had a strong will to prevent the violence against journalists [it would take] real measures to bring those security forces and authorities to the court,” Vy said.
“We have many pictures of the [perpetrators] and we can identify [them]. We wondered why the government would not be able to arrest and punish in accordance with the law . . . but we found that the government has taken no legal action against those security forces.”
Freedom House’s press freedom report for 2013, which was released last week, categorises Cambodia as “not free”, placing it 147th out of 197 countries and territories.
Violent and unpunished crackdowns by Daun Penh district security guards have become more frequent since men matching their description dismantled a Cambodia National Rescue Party protest camp at Freedom Park on January 4.
The taking down of the camp came a day after military police killed at least four garment workers in response to a mass strike outside an industrial park in Phnom Penh. Guards have also detained demonstrators.
In March, at least 10 Boeung Kak protesters were harmed during violent clashes with the unit, and last month another 10 people were injured when about 30 district security guards attacked a peaceful crowd of journalists, NGO workers and supporters of opposition lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua after she ran into the middle of Freedom Park.
Little is known about the makeup of the helmeted district security forces.
In January, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said many of the guards were men who had received no formal government security training. But the municipality, he added, had the Ministry of Interior’s permission to select people to “protect public order”.
In recent days, the force has been deployed in large numbers to implement a newly reinforced ban on public assembly in Phnom Penh.
Rights groups yesterday said more needs to be done to address civilian casualties.
“The key is prosecution. If the Daun Penh district security guards are so irresponsible and brutal . . . then why does City Hall continue to use them?” said Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“I don’t blame the Ministry of Information for just talking about journalists, but the violence is quite unjustifiable. . . . What about the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior? We expect more from them.”
Neil Loughlin, a technical adviser with rights group Adhoc, agreed: “Adhoc welcomes the moves by the Ministry of Information [to condemn attacks on journalists] but the problem is much wider than this. Daun Penh district security forces have repeatedly attacked protesters and bystanders. We would like to remind the government of the right to freedom of assembly.”
Dimanche said he had not seen the statement and would consult with Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong.
Daun Penh District Governor Sok Sambath hung up on a Post reporter, while deputy governor Sok Penh Vuth – who has led some of the attacks – could not be reached.