Freedom of the Press
Press freedom in Cambodia remained under attack in 2011, as the authorities continued to develop and utilize legal mechanisms to silence independent media. For much of the year the government pushed for passage of the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), but domestic and international objections forced officials to postpone the legislation in late December. The law would impose an opaque registration process and other requirements that were expected to fetter the work of community groups, including grassroots media outlets.
Other laws regulating the media are vaguely written and unevenly applied. The 1993 constitution guarantees the right to free expression and a free press. However, media personnel are often prosecuted under provisions of the 1995 press law that prohibit reports deemed threatening to political stability. A new penal code that took effect in 2010, replacing an older version established by the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), continues to criminalize defamation, barring written criticism of public officials or institutions. Those convicted of defamation face a potential fine of 10 million riel ($2,500). Separately, in August 2011, the Anti-Corruption Law came into effect, threatening whistleblowers with criminal penalties if their allegations are determined to be false. Movement during the year on a potential Access to Information Act was promising, though the legislation was in its early stages.
The government uses defamation and other criminal charges to intimidate journalists, and the courts lack independence, as most judges are closely tied to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Cases sometimes linger for years, and individuals are often charged arbitrarily or through the retroactive application of new laws. In January 2011, a coordinator with the local rights group ADHOC was fined 1 million riel ($244) and ordered to pay 3 million riel ($732) in compensation to a company—owned by the wife of the minister for industry, mines, and energy—that he had “defamed” during an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA). The interview, however, occurred in 2009, before the new penal code under which he was charged came into effect. In October, the provincial prosecutor of Siem Reap sued Pen Samithy, editor in chief of the Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper, for publishing two articles on illegal logging in the province. Also that month, RFA journalist Sok Rathavisal was summoned to appear in court to answer incitement charges dating back to 2009, when he covered a land dispute in Ratanakiri Province. The case was still open at year’s end.
Attacks on journalists have decreased, as the government now relies more on legal intimidation and sanctions to control the press. However, physical intimidation does occur. At a press conference in January 2011, anticorruption official Om Yentieng ordered an aide to confiscate the recording devices of journalists after a reporter asked a question about an unsolved 1997 grenade attack against opposition activists. Earlier that month, police grappled with Phnom Penh Post photographer Sovan Philong, seizing his camera and deleting photos he had taken of controversial evictions at Boeung Kak lake. The cases of 10 journalists murdered since 1993 all remain unsolved.
In Cambodia’s highly politicized environment, most media outlets are openly aligned with a political faction, 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 and owners of opposition-aligned outlets are often pressured financially or legally to close their publications. Only two active opposition newspapers remain. 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. In August 2011, the Ministry of Information repealed the licenses of the Water and Fire News and the World News, two papers owned by Keo Amnot Sangkhem, as a result of perceived insults to the ruling party.
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 Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and associates. Opposition outlets are often denied radio and television frequencies. However, access to international broadcasts, including RFA and Voice of America (VOA), and 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 enough advertising to be financially sustainable. Journalists’ pay is very low, and accepting bribes to run or not run particular stories is not uncommon.
Owing to infrastructural and economic constraints, only 3.1 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2011. However, the government has grown concerned with the internet’s potential as a medium for opposition voices. For several weeks in February, many opposition websites, including the popular news aggregator and commentary blog KI-Media, were inaccessible. Though VOA and the Phnom Penh Post reported receiving official and leaked documents indicating that the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications ordered the shutdown, the government denied involvement.