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Free press feels the pinch

Free press feels the pinch

Cambodia is drawing international scrutiny and heated criticism at home and abroad for what journalism and human rights groups claim is an increasing restriction of press freedom.

"The freedom of media is limited,"said Ou Virak, Coordinator of the Alliance for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia (AFEC). "This makes citizens scared to express their ideas. The right to expression is as basic as other human rights. If this right isn't there, other rights will disappear."

At the center of the allegations are the much-publicized arrests of radio journalist Mam Sonando and Roung Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association. Sonando and Chhun have been jailed since mid-October after a defamation case was lodged by Prime Minister Hun Sen over statements allegedly made criticizing a border treaty with Vietnam.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement on December 9 condemning the detention of newspaper editor Hang Sakhorn. Sakhorn was arrested on December 2 on charges of criminal libel stemming from a story about bribery and public officials.

"Criminalizing defamation has a chilling effect on press freedom," wrote CPJ director Ann Cooper. "We call on the government to immediately release Hang Sakhorn and to uphold press freedoms outlined in the 1994 Press Law."

The next day London-based Amnesty International issued an open letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen raising concern about the nation's state of freedom of expression

Concerned statements from the UN, the US Embassy and a chorus of local NGOs soon followed.

"Now I do not know what the level of freedom of expression is," said Kek Galabru, president of Cambodian rights group Licadho. "We are nervous to express ideas - not just Licadho but all of civil society."

The current climate for journalistic freedom prompted the head of a Phnom Penh-based NGO to tell the Post : "To be honest, freedom of the press has gone right in the toilet. We've seen it eroding for the last two years, and it's getting even worse now."

Despite the vociferous outcry, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith says freedom of expression is not only a right of all Cambodians, but that the nation's standard is better than many of its regional neighbors.

"Cambodia is one of the rare countries that allows foreigners to establish newspapers in their country," Kanharith said. "It's not just Cambodia that arrests journalists: the US recently arrested two journalists because they refused to reveal their sources."

He said the arrests of Sonondo and Chhun were not caused by a lack of freedom of expression

"The courts arrested those two people not because of the defamation, but because of inciting [revolt against the government]," he said. "Everyone talked about defamation, but no one ever looked at the complaint. Even the human rights group never went to see the complaint. Rong Chhun was arrested in Poipet when he was escaping to Thailand. It's not defamation. In our media law defamation is not a criminal offense."

Chea Vannath, director for the Center for Social Development, says the situation "is getting worse."

"The television networks are 100 percent controlled and they have no freedom at all," Vannath said. "They only have the freedom to support the leaders and say good things."

According to Khieu Kola, a founding member of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, most journalists working in Cambodia agree that they must be very careful of what they say, write or report.

"Do we have freedom of the press in Cambodia today? Yes and no," said Vannath.

"The press has the freedom to raise sensitive ideas such as corruption, land grabbing and illegal logging that involves rich and powerful people. You can write about these issues - but you have to be careful not to name the people responsible."

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