More than 50 nongovernmental organizations released a joint statement on Monday declaring their concern for journalists in the wake of the government’s ongoing harassment of independent media and its intentions to impede press freedom, sparking a backlash from the government.
The statement from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Cambodian Youth Network, Cambodian Journalists Alliance, labor rights group Central, and more, also calls for the licenses of four media outlets that had been revoked this year to be reinstated.
The NGOs listed nine cases of harassment against journalists since 2019. Three others are currently in detention on charges of incitement and defamation, including Sok Oudom, Ros Sokhet and Rath Rott Mony.
“The government should immediately drop the apparently politically motivated charges against the journalists listed below and unconditionally release them,” says the statement marking International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. “It should repeal or significantly amend repressive laws that unjustifiably impede media freedom and freedom of expression, including media freedom.”
Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said in a Telegram message to a CamboJA reporter that the groups behind the statement had regularly accused the government of rights abuses without ever analyzing the legal aspects of what constitutes a criminal offense.
“In fact, the government does not persecute or hurt journalists,” Malin said. “The journalists who are mentioned in the statement, they faced the law because they committed a crime and it did not infringe on the professional freedom of journalists, so mentioning them is not taking the law into account.”
He suggested that the NGOs avoid making baseless accusations and instead join in court proceedings if they have strong evidence to support someone who has not committed a crime.
“Dropping charges and releasing or not releasing [a suspect] and deciding whether to punish is the decision of the court, which is an independent unit,” he said.
During a Facebook live interview with Prampi Makara Youth Online the same day, Malin said that of the more than 50 organizations that had signed on to the statement, only three or four regularly criticized and attacked the government in line with their own political agenda.
The statement from the 57 civil society groups implored the Cambodian government to respect national and international laws by guaranteeing freedom of opinion and expression and the right to seek, receive and impart information.
“Any restrictions to these rights must be justified through a strict test of legality, necessity and proportionality with respect to a legitimate aim. None of these above-mentioned cases against journalists and their publications meet these principles: they do not assert or advance a legitimate aim and could not be necessary towards any such aim, and therefore violate international human rights law and Cambodia’s legal obligations,” the statement says.
Reacting to the joint statement, the Information Ministry issued a retort Tuesday emphasizing that only 12 of the 57 civil society organizations, who had signed the letter, were properly registered with the Interior or Information ministries.
The ministry accused the civil society organizations of attempting to attract financial support from international donors and boost the popularity of their groups by misleading the public.
“Their actions are intended to get more attention based on the court’s procedures,”the statement said.
It also said that the ministry was only carrying out its duties in line with the Law on the Press when it had revoked the licenses of media organizations.
“In addition, the Information Ministry has the duty to provide or temporarily suspend or terminate licenses in the news and broadcasting sector in Cambodia,” the statement said.
Nop Vy, executive director of Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA), pointed out that while journalists themselves have been targeted and jailed, people who had committed crimes against journalists had not been arrested. He gave the example of two separate groups of journalists who had been attacked in recent months in Tbong Khmum and Stung Treng provinces.
Vy added that the government should eradicate impunity in crimes committed against journalists, and should guarantee that all cases will be investigated transparently.
“I think that judges or prosecutors need to be in an active role to take action against the people who have committed a crime…against journalists to avoid impunity in our society,” Vy said.
He also brought up the authorities’ harassment of journalists, including the seizing of equipment in front of the Chinese Embassy last week during a demonstration marking Paris Peace Agreement Day on October 23.
“Journalists are not suspects who committed a crime, so they should not be scared or threatened for their work,” Vy said.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the government’s ongoing harassment of journalists was unacceptable.
“This rampant impunity must be stopped. It harms Cambodian people and society, and it is not in line with the [government’s] human rights obligations,” she said. “It is crucial that crimes against journalists and human rights defenders are met with effective, independent and transparent investigations, and justice for all those whose rights have been cast aside is delivered.”
Yeang Sothearin, a former journalist of Radio Free Asia (RFA) said that he and his former colleague Uon Chhin had still not received justice since their trial for allegedly supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defense had started one year ago.
“Even though we did not commit a crime, the authorities arrested us and they released us but also put us under investigation by the court….This is an abuse of the freedom of journalists in Cambodia,” Sothearin said.
He added that the case against him was politically motivated, and that still no evidence had been presented that inculpated himself or Chhin in the crime that they allegedly committed by sending articles to US-run Radio Free Asia after its Phnom Penh offices closed in 2017.
Sothearin said that he and Chhin would continue to ask the court to drop their cases and return the equipment that police officials had seized from them, which has prevented them from being able to support their families.
“Now, I can do some articles, but I am still scared because I do not know if what I write will make some parties or some people unhappy,” Sothearin said. “Because we have been charged, they might arrest us at any time.”
The case of the two RFA journalists is under reinvestigation by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after the Supreme Court rejected their appeal to end the probe last month.