Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Closures reversed amid mounting press woes



Closures reversed amid mounting press woes

Closures reversed amid mounting press woes

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

legal expert.

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

murdered.

"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

and friends."

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

to Cambodia.

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

loyalists.

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

to escape.

"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

Cambodia.

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

to Funcinpec.

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

justice system.

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.

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