Cambodian democracy has been eroded by a systematic campaign of government intimidation and prosecution of citizens and activists exercising their right to freedom of expression, according to a report released by the rights group Licadho on Saturday.
The report, titled Freedom of Expression in Cambodia: The Illusion of Democracy, outlines nearly 50 case studies from April 1 to September 30 that the authors claim involve “violations of expressive rights”.
“There is nothing particularly unusual about this six-month period – there were no elections, armed conflicts or national emergencies. Rather, we believed that focusing on a short period would illustrate the magnitude of Cambodia’s freedom of expression problem,” the report says.
The report details numerous high-profile cases, including government threats to expel from the country foreign diplomats and United Nations officials and the prosecution of several opposition party members.
It also includes a host of cases concerning the extortion of journalists, the prosecution of rights workers and the intimidation of residents involved in land disputes with government-backed private companies.
“These seemingly disparate stories, from all corners of the country, are not isolated incidents,” the report says.
“These cases follow patterns, and their similarities are not coincidental. They have the markings of a systematic crackdown.”
Among the cases cited in the Licadho report is the murder of 66-year-old Pich Sophon, who was shot dead on April 26 after campaigning on behalf of fellow residents who were involved in a land dispute with a South Korean company and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces in Battambang province’s Samlot district.
According to the report, no arrests have been made in connection to Pich Sophon’s killing.
Also cited is a letter from Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, who in March accused the United Nations country team of “flagrantly interfering” in the government’s affairs by criticising the swift passage of anti-graft legislation.
At the time, Hor Namhong threatened to expel Douglas Broderick, the UN resident coordinator, warning that the office had “exceeded the limit of its mandate”. According to the authors of the report, such restrictions on freedom of expression are the consequence of a government that is “increasingly fearful of dissent”.
“The ruling elite have consolidated power and harnessed it for their benefit – and the benefits have been lavish,” the report says.
“They are loath to part with their privileges, no matter the cost. Rule of law has been supplanted by rule of the powerful. Voting is a charade, and democracy has become an illusion.”
Among other things, the report calls for the government to allow legitimate police and judicial investigations into the murders of journalists, human rights defenders, union activists and others whose deaths were related to expressive activities.
It also requests that it refrain from lifting the parliamentary immunity of politicians who are exercising their democratic duties.
Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said yesterday that the Licadho report “reflects the reality of Cambodian society”.
“Most people are concerned about recent human rights abuses; corruption is still a major problem and land rights are still a major problem,” he said. “All the time it is getting worse.”
He said a lack of access to information in Cambodia was further evidence that the Kingdom was not functioning as a democracy.
“We cannot say Cambodia is a democratic country while we have limited access to information,” he said. “If we want a democratic society we need transparency in everything.”
On Thursday, the SRP sent a draft Freedom of Information law to the National Assembly for consideration. SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said yesterday that the law would require officials to make available documents that are routinely withheld from opposition party members and others trying to monitor the actions of the government.
But Yim Sovann said yesterday that he was pessimistic about the ruling party’s willingness to adopt such legislation.
“The ruling party has no political will to build a democratic society,” he said. “Corruption is the pillar of the ruling party.”
Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said yesterday that a healthy media presence in Cambodia was proof that democracy and freedom of expression were “blooming”.
“If you go to any village you will see people listening to the radio or reading the paper,” he said. “We do not block any radio, television or newspaper; that’s key to democracy.”
He also pointed to steps the government had taken within the last year – including the introduction of the new Penal Code – as examples of ways in which democracy was being strengthened.
“You cannot achieve full democracy overnight, things take time. We went through so much suffering; we had more than 30 years of civil war. The government is doing its best,” he said.