Nearly four dozen nongovernmental organization marked World Press Freedom Day in Cambodia on Monday by urging the government to ensure that reporters can carry out their work free from fear of retaliation amid the country’s worst outbreak of the coronavirus to date.
In a joint statement, the 45 NGOs expressed concern over what they said is “the continued deterioration of the media environment in Cambodia” and urged the government “to cease the ongoing harassment of independent media outlets and journalists for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression.”
Additionally, the groups also called on the government “to end the rampant impunity against attacked and murdered journalists, to immediately repeal repressive legislation undermining fundamental freedoms—including press freedom—and to ensure that any future legislation is drafted in line with Cambodia’s human rights obligations and through a transparent and consultative process with civil society.”
According to the statement, in 2020 alone, 72 journalists were judicially harassed, with more than 42 of them detained, questioned or imprisoned—contributing to an environment in which members of the media feel unable to work freely and without self-censorship. Most were charged under Articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code, it said.
“Worryingly, the [coronavirus] pandemic has heightened intolerance of authorities to criticism, and journalists have become increasingly vulnerable to targeting and prosecution for their legitimate reporting activities on the topic,” the statement added.
The groups said that between January and April this year, three journalists were arrested and the licenses of six media outlets were revoked by the Ministry of Information for reporting on the government’s response to the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.
“This has created a chilling effect among independent reporters, exacerbated self-censorship and hampered citizens’ access to vital information,” they said.
“In this context, we recall that the media, together with authorities, allows for the wide dissemination of Covid-related information to the public across the country. We, therefore, urge the [government] to recognize the ever more crucial role of journalists in this time of global health crisis and ensure that they can carry out their mission free of fear.”
While the coronavirus made few inroads into Cambodia in 2020, the country’s economy—which leans heavily on the production of textiles—has been battered by a drop in export demand and a series of lockdowns meant to stem the spread of the virus.
On Monday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Health said that 841 people had tested positive for COVID-19 and four people died from the disease, bringing the total number of deaths to 106. The country’s caseload rose to 15,361.
Culture of impunity
The NGOs also noted that offenses against journalists continue “in all impunity” in Cambodia, with at least 22 reporters attacked or threatened in 2020, and one killed “in an alleged traffic accident without proper investigation.”
All the while, they added, the government has pushed for “more repressive legislation undermining freedom of expression online and offline,” including the April 2020 adoption of the controversial Law on the Management of the Nation in a State of Emergency, which gave authorities sweeping powers to restrict freedoms including media freedom.
“Cambodia cannot achieve democracy without a free and independent press that enables access to information as well as transparency and accountability of state institutions,” the groups said.
“The [government] needs to take concrete measures to allow a favorable environment in which press freedom is protected and promoted, and independent media and journalists can perform their crucial role freely and without facing harassment, retaliation, or risking their lives.”
Ministry of Information reacts
Speaking at a forum on World Press Freedom on Monday, Ministry of Information spokesman Meas Sophorn dismissed the NGOs’ statement, saying Cambodia has “no restrictions on press freedoms or journalists” and had actually improved the environment for all media in the country recently.
He suggested that the NGOs had failed to “check the facts of the law in each case” involving journalists before assuming that they can “make a conclusive assessment.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen also issued a statement marking World Press Freedom Day, stressing the importance of the media to the public, particularly during the time of a virus outbreak.
However, Noy Vy, executive director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CAMBOJA), told RFA’s Khmer Service that the country’s major media outlets are beholden to the government and lack professionalism, while real reporters have been increasingly persecuted by the authorities in recent years.
“Some journalists who went to cover deforestation and illegal gambling places have been beaten, but the perpetrators are never arrested, imprisoned or held legally responsible,” he said.
“We know that those who support the crimes are also involved with local officials.”
Call for justice
Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin—who had worked as an editor, reporter and news anchor, and a photographer and videographer for RFA’s Khmer Service, respectively—were taken into custody in November 2017. They remain out on bail but in legal limbo after a series of appeals have been rejected by courts.
They were charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital in September that year and were slapped with additional charges for illegally produced pornography in March 2018. If convicted of the first charge, they could face a jail term of between seven and 15 years.
On Monday, Yeang Sothearin told RFA that freedom of the press continues to be severely restricted in Cambodia and urged the government to stop harassing him. He also called on the court to drop charges and return all the arrest documents to him and Uon Chhin.
“If Prime Minister Hun Sen truly pays attention to the media, as he has said, then he should consider these issues, [that journalists face],” he said.
“Both the court and the Ministry of Information should help review these problems. For journalists who suffer injustice, the court and Information Ministry should help resolve it for them to show that the government is committed to protecting journalists.”
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders categorized Cambodia as “not free” and ranked it 144 out of 180 countries assessed in its World Press Freedom Index 2020, a drop of 12 places since 2017.
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