Freedom of the Press
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Freedom of the Press Scores
Key Developments in 2016:
- In January, the Ministry of Information launched a website to gather public opinion on a draft freedom of information law, but the measure—which had been in development for several years—was not adopted by the end of 2016.
- In May, authorities arrested several human rights activists and threatened human rights organizations with closure as part of a broader crackdown on dissent during the year.
- Political commentator Kem Ley was shot and killed in July, a few days after he spoke on Radio Free Asia about a highly sensitive Global Witness report detailing the vast wealth accumulated by the prime minister’s family.
Despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom, the media are tightly controlled by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and its allies. Vaguely worded laws, including criminal defamation laws, are used to suppress reporting and commentary that are critical of the authorities. Khmer-language newspapers tend to be either associated with or sympathetic to the ruling party, and nearly all television and radio stations are owned by the CPP or the family and associates of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Although the government offered the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) a television license in 2014, it has since raised a series of obstacles to prevent the formation of an opposition station, and no such station was operating by the end of 2016.
During the year, as the CPP sought to consolidate its power ahead of the 2017 local and 2018 national elections, independent journalists and political and civic activists suffered from an increase in criminal charges, threats, and physical attacks.
A telecommunications law that took effect in December 2015 gave the government sweeping powers to monitor personal communications and punish speech on national security grounds, and individuals continued to be prosecuted under existing laws for criticizing the authorities online, which encouraged self-censorship. Those facing charges during 2016 ranged from senior opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who remained in exile throughout the year, to university student Kong Raiya, who was sentenced in March to 18 months in prison for a Facebook post that called for a “color revolution.”
Authorities repeatedly used the 2015 Law on Associations and Nongovernmental Organizations (LANGO) to intimidate activists defending freedom of expression and other human rights. In May, the government threatened to shut down the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) under LANGO after the group published a list of Cambodian political prisoners. Similarly that month, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) was threatened with closure under LANGO by progovernment groups, the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee, and a municipal court.
Human rights defenders also faced charges as individuals during the year. One former and four current ADHOC staff members were charged in May with bribery of a witness in a criminal case against CNRP acting president Kem Sokha. A staff member from the Cambodia Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was also initially accused, but that case was apparently dropped. In September, the former ADHOC staffer, Ny Chakrya, was convicted of criminal defamation for comments made during a 2015 press conference in which he questioned the handling of two land-dispute cases in Siem Reap Province; he was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 6 million riels (US$1,400).
In recent years, physical attacks on journalists and a culture of impunity have had a chilling effect on the media community, and the July 2016 murder of prominent political commentator Kem Ley intensified the problem. He was shot and killed in broad daylight at a gas station in Phnom Penh, days after speaking on Radio Free Asia about a new Global Witness report that examined the enormous economic and political power amassed by Hun Sen’s family. Police arrested a suspect who said he had killed Kem Ley over an unpaid debt, but observers noted serious flaws in the investigation and the suspect’s account of the crime. Kem Ley’s family, fearing for their safety, fled the country.
In another suspicious death, journalist Meng Chhoeun was killed in January in Kompong Speu Province. His small monthly newspaper, Rasmei Preah Vihear, reported mainly on illegal logging and gambling. Local authorities alleged that he was killed by a mob after being accused of stealing a motorbike, but the victim’s wife, his employer, and a journalists’ organization questioned that account. Journalists and activists who focus on illegal resource extraction are considered to be especially at risk of physical violence in Cambodia.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom of the Press 2017. For background information on press freedom in Cambodia, see Freedom of the Press 2015.