A joint statement released on November 2 by a group of 57 NGOs called for the government to stop silencing journalists and media outlets and release journalists who they believe were unfairly arrested.
In response, government officials said the statement did not take into consideration the legality of the situations and was published with a political agenda.
In the statement, the group alleged that the government had harassed independent media outlets and their journalists. They urged the government to immediately drop the ‘apparently politically motivated charges’ against the journalists and release them unconditionally.
The group also called on the government to repeal or amend laws that “unjustifiably impede media freedom and freedom of expression”.
They said the government should drop the incitement charge against Ros Sokhet, the publisher of the Cheat Khmer (Khmer Nation). Sokhet was arrested in connection to a Facebook post deemed to cause incitement and serious chaos to society.
The statement also called for the release of Sok Oudom, the owner of Rithysen radio station, and Rath Rott Mony, a fixer for Russian state news outlet RT.
Oudom had covered a land conflict in Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary in Kampong Chhnang province, while Rott Mony was sentenced to two years for working on a documentary film about child sex trafficking.
The statement also asked the government to reinstate the licence for online media company TVFB, which was revoked after its owner Sovann Rithy was arrested in April. In October, Rithy was sentenced to 18 months in prison for reporting Prime Minister Hun Sen’s comments about the impacts of the Covid-19.
From January to May, Cambodian police and judicial authorities summoned and questioned at least a dozen journalists for their reporting, the statement read. At least nine other cases of harassment against journalists have been recorded since 2019, it said.
“In the past, the government adopted a series of repressive laws that have enabled a crackdown on independent media and social media and resorted to provisions in the penal code – in particular articles 494 and 495 – to silence critical reporting and reporters,” the statement said.
The NGOs said Cambodia did not respect the principles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it accepted in 1992. The covenant stipulates that countries have an obligation to respect and protect freedom of opinion and expression without interference.
“Any restrictions to these rights must be justified through a strict test of legality, necessity and proportionality with respect to a legitimate aim.
“None of these above-mentioned cases against journalists and their publications meet these principles. They do not assert or advance a legitimate aim and are not necessary. Therefore, [Cambodia has] violated international human rights law and Cambodia’s legal obligations,” the statement said.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said the joint statement was released by the same group that detested the government. They take any occasion to fight the government without a legal basis, he said.
“If we look at the content of the statement, it’s kind of baseless. It’s an accusation with rancour coming along with a political agenda. I see this because [the] legal measures [taken against] these journalists were not due to their journalism practices.
“The measures were taken against them because they violated Cambodian law, not because of exercising their freedom and media profession,” Malin said.
He said the call on the government to drop charges and release the journalists violated Cambodia’s laws and its Constitution because the government has no authority to drop charges or release detainees. Such an appeal was like a call on the government to break the law, he said.
“Releasing a statement with rancour and a political agenda without a legal basis is like encouraging the perpetrator to continue committing crimes in Cambodia. The statement should change their direction to educate people to respect the law.
“If they violated the law, they should defend themselves in court. This should be the appeal that is in line with the law and Constitution,” he added.
Ministry of Information spokesperson Meas Sophorn said the ministry will issue a press release in response to the joint statement.