Yet another international organisation released a report criticising the Cambodian government’s treatment of the press yesterday, warning that the Kingdom could experience an even more severe “crackdown” as the elections draw nearer, while also pointing to concerning trends in mature democracies like Australia and the US.
The new report, by the US government-funded pro-democracy NGO Freedom House, singled out Cambodia as a “country to watch”.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s determination to avoid a repeat of 2013 general elections, in which the opposition made significant gains, could translate into a media crackdown ahead of upcoming polls,” the report says.
A press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders released on Wednesday ranked Cambodia 132 out of 180 countries, and claimed the July murder of political analyst Kem Ley was meant to silence media and government critics.
Freedom House ranked the Kingdom 33 out of 40 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and 152 out of 199 countries globally. The Cambodian press was rated “not free” by the report.
Other “countries to watch” included Australia and the US. The report criticised the Australian government’s use of a telecommunications law to collect journalists’ metadata without a warrant, and wondered whether US President Donald Trump’s attack on media outlets could lead to “systematic restrictions on journalists”. Despite these concerns, both countries retained their “free” press ratings, awarded global ranks of 31 and 33, respectively.
Both reports come in the wake of Cambodian-American RFA journalist Chun Chanboth being summonsed to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for allegedly concealing his identity in order to interview a politically sensitive prisoner.
“The authorities in Cambodia stepped up monitoring of social media activity ahead of local and national elections in 2017 and 2018, pursuing criminal cases against both prominent figures and ordinary users whose comments were considered politically sensitive,” the report also states.
University student Kong Raiya recently completed an 18-month sentence for posting Facebook comments appearing to endorse “colour revolution”, a term typically understood to indicate non-violent protest movements. Former opposition lawmakers Um Sam An and Hong Sok Hour, meanwhile, are serving two-and-a-half- and seven-year sentences, respectively, for Facebook posts accusing the government of ceding land to Vietnam.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said average social media users are at particular risk, because they don’t have the support of institutions.
“Compared to professional journalists, social media users – citizen journalists – seem to have suffered from expressing their freedoms,” he said, maintaining that such speech should be protected by the Constitution, though users often suffer legal consequences anyway.
“We learned from the previous elections that the government intends to put more restrictions on the free press,” he said, adding that he anticipated a renewed crackdown.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan rejected the report, claiming there are “no restrictions” on press in Cambodia, before acknowledging that members of the press who encourage “rebellion” or “instability” can be prosecuted.
“They have to respect Cambodian law. If they abuse the law, the court will punish them,” he said.
Siphan also accused Freedom House of trying to “paint the election” by making pre-emptive accusations.