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Editor's death rattles press

Editor's death rattles press

T HE Sept 7 assassination of Non Chan, a well-known editor of a popular Khmer newspaper, came as little surprise to local journalists and human rights groups.

The newspaper's staff, which had been openly critical of the government, had received numerous death threats in recent months. Its previous editor resigned in late July after being warned he would be killed. The newspaper, Samleng Yuvachun Khmer (voice of Khmer youth), had been officially warned by the government on at least three occasions since June, and its journalists threatened with arrest, lawsuits, and confiscation of their equipment if they continued writing articles critical of the government and its leaders.

The newspaper, formerly sympathetic to the ruling Funcinpec party, had been openly critical of Funcinpec leader Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh in recent months, accused high officials of corruption, and called for a political solution with the Khmer Rouge to end the civil war.

Investigators say that the broad daylight killing near Wat Phnom by uniformed men on a motorcycle remains unsolved, but comes amidst a general crackdown against critics of the government, particularly human rights groups and journalists.

Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh has ordered his government to put a stop to criticism he says is harming its image and the ability of the country to attract foreign investment, tourism, and vital military and other aid from donor countries.

Two high level US delegations arrived last week to discuss military and other support to Cambodia, which the government views as critical to waging a fight against the Khmer Rouge and strengthening the government, which is still wracked with internal disputes after an aborted coup attempt in July.

The Post has learned that Prime Minister Ranariddh and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen have drawn up plans for a major government reshuffle expected to be announced in coming weeks. The final details of the reshuffle have yet to be decided but it could affect more than two dozen ministers, governors, and military commanders in a shake up designed to strengthen the hand of the two Prime Ministers after the coup attempt and to reorganize a military that has proved ineffectual in dealing with the Khmer Rouge on the battlefield.

But many of the changes are opposed by the Cambodian People's Party leadership, which is now deeply split between Hun Sen loyalists and a strong faction loyal to Party boss Chea Sim and Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

Government sources say that Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh, Finance Minister Sam Rainsy, and the commanders of all five military regions are targeted for removal from their current positions. A number of other ministers may also be shifted, senior government sources say.

But all sides agree that any shifts will have to be approached delicately and with some degree of prior consensus between the factions that make up the government to avoid provoking another coup attempt.

While Ranariddh and Hun Sen are attempting to construct a formula to consolidate power and ease tension within government ranks, they are also threatening key foreign support by cracking down on government critics.

"The question of the murder of this journalist is something which shocked us and we deplore it. It's been the topic of meetings I've had here from the top to the bottom," US Deputy Assistant secretary of State Peter Tomsen said on Sept 14. His visit came on the eve of a senior US military delegation which is tasked with recomending the nature of US military support now under consideration by Washington.

" A free press is absolutely essential to a democracy. If you don't have a free press then a democratic process is just not possible," Tomsen said.

Another editor was killed under mysterious circumstances in June, a further eight papers have been warned by the government, one editor jailed for writing articles "causing social unrest" and "dissension that threatens the solidarity of the leadership", and the government says it is now preparing lawsuits against five others.

Minister of State for Information Khieu Kanharith said the day after Chan's murder: "If he hadn't been killed, we would have sued him."

Amnesty International had a different response in a Sept 9 statement. "The unexplained death of this man, and other acts of intimidation, add to the pressures on journalists to exercise self censorship. The right to freedom of expression is at stake in Cambodia, as journalists have come under increasing pressure in recent months not to criticize the government." It added that Non Chan "apparently had no enemies, personal or financial disputes, [and] might have bean killed because of the articles he printed in his publication."

Four newspapers have elected to stop printing since the killing and many of their staff have gone into hiding. "In this country now, you cannot say the truth. If you say the truth you are the enemy," said one journalist with Samleng Yuvachun Khmer. "The government is afraid of the truth."

Two well-known human rights groups have been threatened by the government with closure or legal action since the killing of the editor for insinuating that the killing may have been politically motivated.

A letter this week signed by the chief of cabinet of Prime Minister Ranariddh, Ly Thuch threatened to take action against the Cambodian League for Defence and Promotion of Human Rights, Licadho.

The group had signed a joint statement by local human rights organizations calling for an investigation on whether the assassins were connected with the government.

" Your action can be brought to court as it can be considered an inducement to public disorder and to provoke anarchy," Prince Ranariddh's office said.

Last week, another well-known human rights group, the Khmer Institute for Democracy, was threatened with closure after it released a statement calling for an end to harassment of local journalists in the wake of the killing.

Two days after the murder of Non Chan, the five-year-old daughter of an official of the United Nations Center for Human Rights was kidnapped, shot, and dumped in the street near Phnom Penh's Royal Palace.

Investigators say that the act may have been a simple car robbery, but privately UN officials have their doubts.

They say that the center had been receiving threats for recent investigations over military human rights abuses and were actively investigating the murder of local journalists.

They say that the girl Marica Oliveros, a Spanish national, was shot point blank through the thigh, without any obvious motive or provocation, after she was kidnapped.

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