Cambodia’s press freedom ranking has dropped for the sixth consecutive year, sliding five places to 149th and remaining “not free”, according to US watchdog Freedom House’s 2013 global Freedom of the Press report released on Wednesday.
The report credits “an increase in the number of journalists behind bars … and a significant rise in threats and physical violence against the press”, as key reasons for Cambodia’s worsened ranking and press freedom score.
Pa Nguon Teang, director of Voice of Democracy radio and the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said the rankings accurately reflect the increasingly restrictive media environment in the Kingdom.
“I totally agree with the report, and it is true that Cambodia is doing worse with freedom of press,” he said, adding that the shutdown of independent media stations during commune election voting last year reflects a government cracking down on alternative voices.
“They were afraid of losing their opportunity if they allowed independent media to broadcast on that day. If media could broadcast on polling day, the voter might have the opinion to consider their vote,” he said.
Others, including Pen Samithy, president of the Cambodian Club of Journalists, said an equal cause for concern was the self-censorship practised by journalists afraid to tackle contentious topics.
“So if journalists can push away from this self-censorship, the media can be more free and better,” he said.
Norway and Sweden tied for top spot in the rankings, with North Korea once again listed dead last, this time tied with Turkmenistan.
Regionally, Cambodia fared worse than Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, Thailand and the Philippines, but beat out fellow ASEAN members Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam.
Despite its ranking at 162nd, Myanmar registered the survey’s largest year-on-year improvement, up from 187th last year.
In Cambodia, the report points to two high-profile cases as evidence for worsening press freedom.
The case of Beehive Radio’s outspoken owner Mam Sonando, who was arrested last year for stoking a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment before being released last month, is fingered as one example.
Also cited is slain journalist Hang Serei Oudom, whose battered body was found in his car last September in Ratanakkiri’s O’Chum district.
Oudom, who exposed illegal logging in the area for the Virakchun Khmer newspaper, was the first journalist killed in Cambodia since 2008, and the 10th killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Despite these cases, Samithy said his organisation did not see an increase in intimidation or threats towards journalists.
“In general, the situation for journalists in Cambodia is better now than before,” he said, adding that the index was an imperfect measure of the situation on the ground.
Nguon Teang disagreed, citing one of his own VOD radio journalists, whom he says was attacked by unknown assailants while covering protests at the Kingsland garment factory earlier this year and later warned to keep away from the dispute.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the report did not accurately reflect the media environment.
“They can choose any topic to freely discuss. I don’t think Cambodia is behind neighbouring countries,” he said.
“Professional and ethical journalists are always safe in Cambodia,” he added, saying that some jailed journalists had used the media as a tool for “propaganda, lobbying, activism and extortion”.
Last year, the Council of Ministers along with other government ministries called staff members from US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America into a meeting where they were allegedly berated by officials for airing reports that appeared too pro-opposition and anti-government.