Freedom of the Press
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Two journalists were killed in 2014, bringing to 12 the total number of journalists killed in Cambodia since 1993. Perpetrators of attacks against reporters generally enjoy impunity.
Laws regulating the media are vaguely worded and unevenly applied. Article 41 of the 1993 constitution protects the rights to free expression and a free press, but stipulates that these rights may not be abused in a way that compromises national security. A 1995 press law prohibiting reports deemed threatening to political stability is susceptible to arbitrary enforcement.
In April 2014, an unofficial English-language version of a draft cybercrime law was leaked, revealing potential for a new law to restrict Cambodia’s online sphere. Article 28 of the draft law seeks to criminalize online activities that are seen to “hinder the sovereignty and integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” and penalties outlined in the draft bill are more severe than the offline equivalent in the penal code. While a spokesman for the Council of Ministers said in December that the law had been “scrapped” and was no longer a priority, concerns about increasing government control of the internet remain.
Defamation, which includes written criticism of public officials or institutions, is a criminal offense punishable by large fines, and defamation cases against journalists are not uncommon. Defamation is not directly punishable with jail time, but journalists can be imprisoned if they are unable to pay the associated fines. Among the defamation cases decided in 2014 was one against the Phnom Penh–based journalist and blogger Rupert Winchester, who claimed on his blog that a developer was planning to knock down a historic building in the capital. In July, he was convicted and fined 8 million riel ($2,500) and ordered to pay an additional 100 million riel ($25,000) in damages. The violation of laws banning incitement and the dissemination of disinformation can result in jail sentences of as long as three years.
The courts lack independence, as most judges are closely tied to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Cases sometimes drag on for years, and individuals may be charged arbitrarily or through the retroactive application of new laws. In a somewhat encouraging move, the Ministry of Information signed a three-year agreement in May 2014 with the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Swedish International Development Agency to begin drafting an access to information law. However, progress remains uncertain given the National Assembly’s history of rejecting drafts of such laws—including once in 2013.
Licenses are required for broadcast media, and opposition outlets are often denied radio and television frequencies. In January, the government denied the independent Beehive Radio station the right to boost its signal strength, as well as a television license, on grounds that there were no available frequencies. According to its director, Beehive has been requesting permission for the expansion since 2005. Separately, in June, Prime Minister Hun Sen offered the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) a television license—the first time for an opposition party—in an attempt to reconcile the party’s boycott of the parliament. However, Cambodia’s information minister in November said that the CNRP would be granted only a digital channel on the grounds that all analog channels were unavailable.
Weeks before national elections in 2013, the government ordered local radio stations to stop rebroadcasting foreign-produced Khmer-language radio content; the ban was reversed four days later following strong local and international pressure. The incident echoed a similar government directive to foreign outlets in 2012 to cease broadcasting prior to communal elections.
A proposed Law on Associations and Nongovernmental Organizations remained in draft form at year’s end. Media freedom analysts have expressed concern that the law, if enacted, could fetter the work of grassroots and nongovernmental organizations and media outlets by creating a complicated and restrictive regulatory bureaucracy.
In Cambodia’s highly politicized media environment, most outlets are openly aligned with a political faction, leaving little space for balanced views and journalism conducted in the public interest. Journalists, particularly those at local outlets, face pressure from politicians to cover issues in a particular manner. In May 2014, the director of National Television of Kampuchea (TVK), a national public broadcaster, resigned days after the station had aired a CNRP advertisement featuring footage of security forces beating demonstrators; media freedom advocates expressed concern over possible political motivation.
Despite low internet penetration rates, the government has become concerned with the internet’s potential as a medium for opposition voices, and censorship of online content is a growing concern. Access to independent websites such as KI-Media is occasionally unavailable on some internet service providers. More broadly, the diversity of viewpoints in Khmer-language news is severely limited.
Physical attacks on journalists in recent years have had a chilling effect on the media community. Self-censorship is prevalent, particularly among Khmer-language journalists. Media workers covering sensitive topics such as land grabs and opposition protests are frequently subject to harassment, equipment seizures, and physical assault. In May, Voice of Democracy reporter Lay Samean was severely beaten by district security forces while covering an opposition rally in Phnom Penh. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, two journalists were killed in Cambodia in 2014 for unconfirmed motives, the first to die in Cambodia since Hang Serei Odom was murdered in 2012. In February 2014, local fishermen in Kampong Chhnang province beat to death journalist Suon Chan of the Meakea Kampuchea newspaper, an attack that press freedom groups believe might have been linked to his reporting on illegal fishing activities there. In October, journalist Taing Try of the regional newspaper Vealntri was shot to death while investigating illegal logging in Kratie province. Perpetrators of attacks against reporters generally enjoy impunity.
There are 13 daily newspapers in Cambodia. Khmer-language newspapers tend to be either associated with or sympathetic to the ruling party. Editors and owners of Cambodia’s handful of opposition-aligned outlets have been pressured through financial or legal means to close their publications. A few English-language publications, including the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, continue to operate. All 15 national television stations and nearly all of Cambodia’s roughly 160 radio stations—the main sources of information for many Cambodians—are owned or controlled by either the ruling party or by Hun Sen’s family and associates. Cambodia’s poor economy presents further financial challenges to opening and operating independent media institutions. Due to the low literacy rate and the difficulties of maintaining distribution networks, print media are often unable to attract enough advertising to be financially sustainable. Journalists’ pay is very low, and accepting bribes to run or withhold particular stories is not uncommon.
Owing to infrastructural and economic constraints, only 9 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2014. Directives issued by the government in 2012 have restricted the permissible locations for internet cafés and circumscribed the activities of users. Café owners are required to register users and maintain surveillance on all internet activity. Nevertheless, online news and commentary, as well as social media use, have been increasing in recent years and continue to offer a space for greater diversity of views.