A SERIES of press-related incidents has seen a journalist with links to Funcinpec
self-exiles shot at, six newspapers closed down, and the completion of a sub-decree
clarifying what can be published about issues affecting "national security"
or "political stability".
"I will kill you next time," one attacker with a silencer-equipped pistol
reportedly shouted after shooting out the car window of Nou Kim Ei, editor of Nokor
Khmer (Cambodian Kingdom), on the night of Jan 11. No one was injured in the attack.
"What happened Sunday night is certainly very troubling, adding to what appears
to be a trend developing as elections are supposed to be coming up," said one
But at Post press time, Hun Sen moved to ease growing concern over pre-election press
freedoms by ordering the Ministry of Information to cancel the newspaper suspensions,
in a "good will" gesture to improve the democratic climate.
Earlier, Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith (CPP) had defended the
Jan 8 suspensions of six newspapers as necessary to protect journalists from being
"If we don't suspend these newspapers...and if [journalists] don't know their
limits, we could find ourselves at their funerals," Kanharith told a press conference.
"If a journalist writes a story that defames someone else, and he is shot dead,
it is worse than not having his newspaper suspended. We don't want to lose our colleagues
Three newspaper editors and one reporter have been killed in Cambodia since 1993,
and for many others there have been beatings, grenade attacks, ransacking of newspaper
offices or verbal intimidation and dozens of death threats. In virtually every case,
the government has been accused by human rights officials of failing to mount serious
investigations to find the culprits, some of whom were dressed in military, police
or bodyguard-type uniforms.
The government has repeatedly complained that the Khmer opposition press indulges
in publishing unsubstantiated allegations and vitriolic stories and cartoons aimed
at senior government figures including the Prime Ministers.
In the latest of a spate of newspapers suspensions since the opposition press resurface
after the July coup, six papers were ordered closed for 30 days, pending a court
investigation. If found guilty of violating the 1995 press law, they face fines of
up to 15 million riel but not imprisonment.
All were suspended for threatening national security and political stability - which
is not defined in the law, but will be in the yet-to-be approved government subdecree
- or defamation.
Editors of five of the newspapers denounced the suspensions in a Jan 10 joint statement
as "dirty tricks" instigated by Hun Sen. They said they would not attend
their trials because the courts were under the Second Prime Minister's control.
One paper was closed for quoting guerrilla resistance leader Nhek Bun Chhay as saying
that "hundreds" of governmnt soldiers were killed in a botched artillery
attack on O'Smach.
Huon Mara, publisher of Samleng Samapheap (The Voice of Equality), accused of breaching
national security and political stability, said that his story was accurate. He said
another paper, not closed down, had published the same information.
Antarakum (Intervention) was suspended for defamation for alleging that Hun Sen was
involved in drug smuggling, and that he planned to kill Prince Ranariddh if he returned
Variations of the assassination story were carried by Neak Torsu (Resistance) and
Prayuth (Fight), which were also shut down. Kanharith said Prayuth had also violated
an earlier suspension order - issued for allegedly exaggerating O'Smach casualty
figures - by starting publishing again without permission.
Kumnith Kon Khmer (Khmer Youth Idea) was suspended for defamation for calling Hun
Sen a "dog".
The last paper is Kolbot Khmer Angkor (Khmer Angkorean Youth), which wrote that the
National Assembly had a "Khmer body" but a "Vietnamese head"
- considered defamation of a national body or figure.
The publishers of several of the newspapers complained they had not received warning
letters before their suspensions, although the Press Law does not require such warnings.
Khieu Kanharith said the Ministry of Information had followed all proper procedures,
and all the local Khmer press had been warned recently not to use insulting words,
and not to become mouthpieces for political or military "extremists".
Kanharith said the press is allowed to criticize but not to insult individuals nor
exaggerate the truth.
The 1995 press law has been criticized by the media, NGOs, and human rights organizations
for being vaguely worded, particularly for the ban on articles which "affect
national security or political stability".
Two years later, the government is moving to pass a sub-decree to define those terms
more clearly. The draft is now to be forwarded to the Council of Ministers for approval
- it does not require National Assembly approval - according to the Ministry of Information.
Critics say the draft is still vague. For example, types of publishing deemed threatening
to national security include information which "is of disservice to territorial
integrity and the sustainability" of Cambodia.
"You could drive a truck through that," noted one critic.
The draft, according to an unofficial translation, also includes bans on publishing:
military or national police "secrets"; false information which causes "chaos",
an illegal change of government, or incites people to take up arms against the state;
untrue information causing "turmoil" within the police or army; articles
which support "genocidal" rebels (the Khmer Rouge); those which violate
the King. Also banned are vulgar words or pictures that disgrace national institutions.
Parts of the subdecree require that the courts examine the relationship between contentious
stories and the damage caused by any actions they provoke.
Khieu Kanharith denied the subdecree and newspaper closures represented the launch
of a media crackdown, but some observers were alarmed.
"It's a blinding pattern. It's fairly obvious what we're seeing is the first
moves to silence any form of organized dissent, the sooner the better," said
a human rights worker, citing the shooting at Nou Kim Ei.
However, Nou Kim Ei did not have to publish one copy of his newspaper to become a
target. He may instead have been singled out because of his links with Funcinpec
He has not printed his newspaper since the July coup, but said he has continued to
received threats. And although he calls himself politically neutral, he has had recent
contact with self-exiled Funcinpec officials visiting Phnom Penh.
Clutching a pack of cigarettes and puffing nervously, the editor said he was driving
with his family Sunday evening near Wat Phnom when several motorcycles approached
his car as he stopped.
"The riders hit my car with their hands and yelled for me to come out from the
car. But I told my family to lock the doors and I reversed my car and then sped forward
"Just as I turned my car, they started to shoot. In the car my son told me he
saw a man on a motorcycle pull out a gun from his waistband."
Then the car's rear window exploded. His brother Eng Vichet said he heard one of
the attackers shouting "I will kill you next time".
A cigarette seller who witnessed the attack confirmed the basic details. "I
saw the incident. There were three motorcycles, I'm not sure if they shot or threw
a rock at the car. And when the glass shattered, I saw three motorcycles speed away."
Pol Pythy, a police inspector from Daun Penh district, said he had been unable to
interview Nou Kim Ei, who has gone into hiding.
"So we cannot decide if this is an argument about a road accident, a long-standing
personal dispute or a murder attempt."
The editor told the Post he believed the attack was related to his journalism, despite
not publishing in six months. He said his car had been shot at, and he had received
threatening phone calls before July for reporting that the Vietnamese were infiltrating
After the coup he left Phnom Penh for the provinces, but still got threatening calls
on his mobile phone, warning him not to consider restarting his newspaper.
One human rights worker said the shooting attack appeared professional, and a deliberate
warning to the opposition press.
Another, however, suggested that it could be connected to the editor's close relations
Nou Kim Ei returned to Phnom Penh in November and met several times with visiting
Funcinpec officials from the party's advance teams. He insisted that he is not a
Funcinpec member and has not joined the Union of Cambodian Democrats (UCD). He said
his meetings were friendly ones - "to inquire about their health, and so on"
- but told human rights workers that he was sure he had been observed.
"He's certainly on a list of people to be watched and warned," the rights
worker said. "He seems to be fairly well-known in Funcinpec circles. He is not
an unknown quantity."
Meanwhile, one simmering confrontation between the government and journalists appears
to have been resolved. Khieu Kanharith confirmed he would not pursue plans to expel
Canadian broadcast journalist Ed Fitzgerald for supposedly unfair reporting of the
The resolution was thrashed out at a Jan 7 meeting between Kanharith and Fitzgerald.
Kanharith said he had asked for the government to be able to present its position
in an on-air debate with Fitzgerald. The Canadian journalist agreed to that, but
Kanharith said later he didn't know whether the debate would happen. The important
thing, the government official said, was an agreement to debate, not the debate itself.