Freedom of the Press
Media freedom remained under attack in 2010 as the Cambodian government moved forward with several pieces of legislation restricting space for free expression and continued to use criminal charges to punish opposition media. Toward year’s end, the government began to show indications of extending these restrictions to the internet.
Laws regulating freedom of the press are vague and their application uneven. The 1993 constitution guarantees the right to free expression and a free press, though media personnel are often prosecuted under the defunct criminal code of the UN Transition Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) or amended provisions of the 1995 press law prohibiting reporting deemed threatening to political stability. On December 10, Cambodia’s new penal code, intended to fully replace its UNTAC predecessor, went into effect. While it no longer categorizes disinformation as a crime, the code continues to criminalize defamation by prohibiting written criticism of public officials or institutions, regardless of its veracity. Article 495 of the penal code also prohibits distributing material that could “create serious turmoil in society.” On December 17, an associate with the UN World Food Programme was arrested under this “incitement” article for sharing articles with two colleagues from opposition outlet KI-Media that lampooned government officials. Parliament also passed an anti-corruption bill that lacks sufficient protection for whistleblowers, including journalists. Also in December, a draft of a long-anticipated law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) was released containing an onerous registration and reporting mechanism that was expected to intentionally fetter the work of informal, grassroots media outlets.
Judges, most of whom are closely tied to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), continued to try defamation cases under criminal codes. In February 2010, Radio Free Asia reporter Sok Serey was sued for broadcasting on alleged corruption in a community mosque, and the following month the editor of Khmer Amatak was fined in connection with an article on corruption. Two jailed journalists were released during the year: Hang Chakra, editor in chief of the opposition daily Khmer Machas Srok who had been detained in 2009 for articles critical of the deputy prime minister, and Ros Sokhet, who was released early after having received a two-year prison term in 2009 for disinformation.
Police often utilize physical intimidation to silence reporters. LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights group, reported at least three separate cases in 2010 of military personnel physically harming journalists attempting to photograph incidents of illicit gambling and logging. The editor of Prey Nokor was forced to resign in August when government officials threatened to deport him for the newspaper’s coverage of ethnic Khmer Krom issues. Impunity is a concern; the cases of 10 journalists murdered since 1993 all remain unsolved.
In a highly politicized environment, most media outlets are openly aligned with various political factions, leaving little space for balanced views and journalism conducted in the public interest. The majority of the approximately 20 Khmer-language newspapers in operation are owned by individuals associated with or sympathetic to the ruling party. Editors or owners of opposition-aligned outlets are often pressured either financially or legally to fold their publications. The recently freed editor of Khmer Machas Srok closed his paper this year, leaving only two active opposition newspapers. A few international publications, such as the Phnom Penh Post, exist, but the longtime French-language Cambodge Soir shut down in 2010 due to financial difficulties. All television and most radio stations, the main sources of information for the two-thirds of the population who are functionally illiterate, are owned or controlled by either the CPP or by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and associates. Opposition outlets are often denied radio and television frequencies. Access to international broadcasts, including Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, as well as local independent radio services such as Voice of Democracy, is generally unrestricted. Cambodia’s poor economy presents added financial challenges to opening and operating independent media institutions. Due to low literacy rates, print media are often unable to attract advertising to generate sufficient revenue to be sustainable. Journalists’ pay is very low, and accepting bribes to run or not run particular stories is not uncommon.
The government started to show signs of concern over increasing internet penetration and the internet’s use by opposition voices. Owing to infrastructural and economic constraints, only 1.26 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2010. Independent news sources and blogs have recently appeared, and the government’s order to opposition website KI-Media to shut down in December marked the first significant indication of the state’s attempts to curb online dissent.