Even as freedom of expression advocates from across the world gathered in Phnom Penh yesterday, a new report provided a sobering reminder of the risks facing Cambodian human rights defenders.
Outspoken Boeung Kak lake activist Tep Vanny participated in a panel discussion to open the bi-yearly IFEX conference, calling on delegates to appeal for the release of her imprisoned fellow activist, Yorm Bopha.
“We are advocating for our lives. We don’t want power. We want justice,” she said.
“An independent press is very important. Without it we will be marginalised,” she added.
The freedom of expression network brought together representatives from member organisations in 67 countries, with five regional advocates joining Vanny to share their stories at its opening session yesterday.
Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the Philippines-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, told delegates that the wider public also had a responsibility to fight for free speech.
“The defence of journalists must come from the community itself … they must feel like they are also losing something [valuable],” she said.
De Jesus comes from one of the world’s most dangerous places for the press and wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Stop Killing Journalists.
Seventy-three journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1992, including 34 in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre – recognised as the single deadliest event in press history.
“Democracy and freedom both involve hard work, you can’t just sit there and take everything for granted,” she said.
That theme was echoed by Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar, who mocked his country’s liberal use of sedition laws to stifle dissent, saying the government was close to labelling “breakfast” as seditious.
“You have to come out and fight in a crisis. You cannot be neutral. Why pinch when you can punch?” he asked.
The conference opening also saw a new report released by co-organiser, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and international freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19 examining threats facing local activists.
“We have found that the primary victims of human rights violations in Cambodia are people who are at the fault lines of defending their right to share in the [country’s] economic growth,” Dr Agnes Callamard, executive director of ARTICLE 19, said.
The report identified grassroots land rights activists, unionists and outspoken female land activists as being particularly vulnerable to threats most likely to include physical violence, arrest without charge and legal harassment.
The shooting of three garment workers at a Svay Rieng demonstration last year, the April 2012 killing of logging activist Chut Wutty and the continued imprisonment of Bopha are cited as examples in the report.
The conference opened a day after the “Phnom Penh Declaration” was signed by a number of regional press unions, announcing the formation of a new Southeast Asian Journalist Union (SEAJU) to defend press freedom. Unions representing journalists from the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar all signed.
Although the region has yet to have its own Arab Spring, a free-expression “movement” was developing within ASEAN, CCHR president Ou Virak said.
Echoing the recommendations of an IFEX statement also released yesterday, he called on ASEAN to empower its human rights commission to receive complaints, investigate violations and demand accountability from member states.
“If ASEAN is known for anything it should not be known for exploitation and violations …human rights and democracy should be a minimal standard within ASEAN,” he said.
Although the bloc adopted a human rights declaration during Cambodia’s chairmanship last year, it has been criticised for vague wording that could place individual rights below national interests.