Sun Narin is concerned that constraints on freedom of Cambodia’s press are being tightened by the government, with little protection of journalists in the new criminal code and reports of state efforts to block opposition voices online
Ros Sokhet was sentenced to two years in prison after sending text messages to Soy Sopheap (pictured below), accusing him of demanding money from a woman who illegally fired a gun to keep her story out of the press. The freelance journalist was released in 2010 after a year in prison.
Surya Subedi, the UNs special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, has said that Cambodia’s government needs to quicken reforms, including those surrounding press laws. “Those holding public positions should be willing to accept criticism for their decisions. Criticism is not a crime, but an exercise of freedom of conscience, and an act of intelligence,” he said in one of his visits to the Kingdom.
Press Freedom Day will be celebrated around the world on May 3, but if we are being honest, Cambodian citizens don’t have much to cheer about. Freedom of speech and the freedom of the media seem to be deteriorating despite the insistence of foreign donors that the government increases transparency and respects democratic human rights.
In a recent example, officials from the Ministry of Information ordered Sombok Khmom radio to no longer rent their studio to Khmer Post Radio, a local news programme that often covers social issues around developments such as deforestation and land disputes. The government was quoted by Radio Free Asia as saying that the reason the programme was cancelled was because it had failed to acquire approval from the Ministry before broadcasting.
A more interesting incident was the first confirmed instance of the government meddling in journalism and political commentary taking place on the internet.
Last February, according to The Post, the government requested some internet service providers such as Metfone and Ezecom to block the blog KI-Media, which posts Cambodia-related content and hosts discussions on Cambodian current events that are often highly critical, of government officials.
Mao Chakrya, director general of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications initially said that no such decree had been made, however an email from one of his subordinates revealed that some companies had, in fact, been asked for their “cooperation” in blocking access to KI-Media, and thanked in advance for their compliance.
In an email regarding the internet censorship issue, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said that the government was committed to protecting the right to political speech online, despite the role that social media and online authors had played in recent uprisings across the Middle East. But if the actions of some government officials are any indication, there is concern within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party over the impact that online opposition voices might have on Cambodian politics.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in a statement that the site’s blockage “is clear evidence that the government is working to ensure that online democratic space is policed and controlled in much the same way as traditional forums for communicating ideas and criticisms”.
Most journalists working for traditional media outlets in Cambodia have learned to practice self-censorship, or else share the fate of outspoken critics in the media such as Ros Sokhet, who has been in and out of court, and prison, for his abiding opposition to the CPP and other powerful figures allied with the government.
In an interview with The Post, Ou Virak said the government fears “the creation of a digital democracy which permits the sharing of grievances, criticisms and opinions which run counter to [their own]”. The occurrences of the government taking action over these concerns are few, but the critical nature of the sites which have been affected suggests purposeful censorship on the part of the government.
A new criminal code enacted in December includes more than 20 articles related to journalism, and according to civil society groups and opposition lawmakers, it provides little legal recourse for journalists or other critical voices.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights, in a statement to local press, said that the new criminal code’s provisions for defamation “jeopardize the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression” and called on the government to apply international standards to their freedom of speech laws.
According to a March, 2011 report from Radio Free Asia, 40 journalists from 24 media outlets in Cambodia appealed to the government to expand the freedoms guaranteed to individuals and the press, fearing the current law would allow for discrimination against voices that the government seeks to silence.
If Cambodia wishes to be taken seriously by other democracies, human rights and democratic liberties must be protected. Crimes such as defamation or disinformation must be clearly defined, so that authorities can’t suppress dissenting voices to protect their own interests. Journalism is often called the cornerstone of democracy. The interests of the people cannot be represented if they are scared to speak and are unable to access reliable information about the country’s current leaders. In Cambodia, and in other countries around the world, the government’s refusal to accept or respond to constructive criticism is the greatest obstacle standing in the way of true democratic development.