A government official on Thursday criticised a report which ranked Cambodia as “not free”, saying it concentrated only on the political aspects while ignoring the fact that “freedom” had various other dimensions to it.
Calling the report biased, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said: “The report concentrates on the political aspects only, such as the enforcement of the law on civil society groups, media, and political parties."
He was commenting on a report by Freedom House, a US-based watchdog that on Tuesday issued its 2019 freedom report placing Cambodia as “not free” with a score of 26 out of 100, with the score of zero being least free and 100 as the most free.
This year’s score saw Cambodia slip four points from 30 out of 100 compared to last year.
“When we enforce the law on the groups that contravene it, it [Freedom House] claims freedom has deteriorated. So, this means that it focused more on the political aspects and ignored the other more technical aspects of freedom,” Malin said.
However, human rights proponents claim the report reflected the current situation in the Kingdom.
The drop of four points was down to Political Rights and Civil Liberties. In this category, the report claimed the general election held last year “offered voters no meaningful choice”, produced a “one-party” legislature, non-independent election commission, and the ban of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The report said world freedom declined in its political rights and civil liberties for an alarming 13 consecutive years – from 2005 to 2018.
The Kingdom’s neighbours were also ranked as “not free” according to the report, with Laos scoring 14 out of 100, Vietnam 20 out of 100 and Thailand 30 out of 100.
Cambodia was among the 10 countries in the spotlight, which saw important developments during the survey period that affected the democratic trajectory and “deserve special scrutiny in 2019”.
“Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, fortified his near-total grip on power in lopsided general elections that came after authorities dissolved the main opposition party and shuttered independent media outlets,” it claimed.
Supporting the report, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) executive director Chak Sopheap said the low score the Kingdom received reflected the deterioration of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties, which has become more severe over the past year.
“Cambodia’s classification as ‘not free’ demonstrates the damage done to freedom in this country following the closing space for civil society, the enactment of laws and regulations that restrict fundamental freedoms.
“[It also reflects] the restriction of independent media and the political opposition, judicial harassment of human rights defenders and the proliferation of digital surveillance. These factors have served to undermine the rule of law and democracy in Cambodia,” she told The Post.
She said in order to improve freedom in Cambodia, the government must take measures to foster a safe, respectful and enabling environment for civil society, which includes removing legal and policy measures that unjustifiably limit the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
“To have true freedom in Cambodia, we must be able to speak out against human rights abuses and injustice without fear,” she said.
Soeung Sen Karuna, the senior Human Rights investigator with rights group Adhoc, said the score could have dropped due to the arrest of two Radio Free Asia journalists, the prakas on the control of internet use, and the arrest of an RT (formerly Russia Today) news fixer.
“This evaluation can reflect freedom of the press, like some media that were shut down and remained closed until now. The Cambodia Daily has not resumed its publication while some who expressed their opinions on Facebook were arrested. These may have led to the score dropping,” he said.
Malin said the report was incomplete. He said it only focused on a section – political rights – and did not consider the overall aspects of freedom such as the rights of citizens. He said as a whole, freedom in Cambodia had improved.
“Overall, the aspects of freedom is connected to the performance of all sectors including, economic, social rights, cultural, civil, and political rights, and the rights of specific groups in the society such as children, woman, people with disabilities, minority groups, refugees, and even the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups.
“Freedom in Cambodia has notably improved through the level of peace, development, poverty reduction, and economic prosperity,” he stressed.
Royal Academy of Cambodia president Sok Touch said the score given to Cambodia by Freedom House was based on its own algorithm, but not on the laws of Cambodia.
He also expressed surprise that freedom in Thailand was scored higher than Cambodia when the Thai government was not born from an election but currently controlled by the military.