Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Covering Cambodia’s elections amid threats

Kem Sokha, CNRP president, arrives at a polling center to vote during the 2017 commune election. CamboJA
Kem Sokha, CNRP president, arrives at a polling center to vote during the 2017 commune election. CamboJA

In July 2018, veteran journalist Vann Vichar had the easiest election reporting experience of his life. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ran virtually unopposed after dissolving the popular opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and arresting its leader along with a number of members. For many reporters, covering the controversial elections entailed increased monitoring and intimidation. But for Vichar, all was smooth sailing. After years working as a senior reporter for Radio Free Asia (RFA), he had left his job to work as a freelancer. When he covered the 2018 elections, he was employed by Cambodia News Channel (CNC) — a government friendly television broadcaster. RFA has long drawn the ire of the government, but CNC is owned by Kith Meng, a powerful tycoon with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Moving to CNC was like night and day, said Vichar.

“There were no challenges during the election campaign or elections,” he said.

“We went to the field with CPP officials because we didn’t focus on sensitive or negative issues. Our journalist role at that time was like disseminating propaganda for them — highlighting positive stories about the ruling CPP.”

The situation was intensely different from what Vichar experienced at RFA, just a year earlier while covering the 2017 commune elections and during the previous 2013 national elections.

“We had to be cautious about publishing anything that could bring us accusations from the court,” he said.

Commune elections are held one year before national elections when Cambodians vote for more than 11,500 local-level Commune Councilors across the country. The elections are typically viewed as a harbinger for what will happen the following year, when the 125 Members of Parliament are voted for nationwide.

As a result, though commune elections are not considered as high stakes as national elections, they often come with similar restrictions for the journalists covering them.

Ahead of the 2017 elections, Vichar went to cover the campaigns in Mondulkiri — a remote, resource-rich province in Cambodia’s northeast. Though the province is extremely rural and holds relatively few seats, it has also been the site of a number of sensitive stories due to its choice spot for forestry crimes, and numerous journalists have faced challenges while reporting in the province.

“I was working for RFA at that time, and I felt that there were drivers who were monitoring my movements, and they were taking note of the location where I was staying. They didn’t threaten me face to face, but I felt pressure that I couldn’t carry out my duty independently.”

This was hardly the first time Vichar experienced such subtle threats. He had developed an arsenal of tactics to avoid being followed, including renting rooms in two separate guest houses, so it would be harder for authorities to track his whereabouts. On another occasion, after hiring a motorbike driver to take him to interview Cambodians in a remote village, Vichar discovered the driver was an undercover police officer. He returned to his guest house and pretended to check in for the night, only to sneak out and drive back to Phnom Penh immediately.

“I think that there was the intention of threatening a journalist. Whenever there is political tension, journalists have also faced extra challenges, especially threats not to unveil true information.”

“[While at RFA] I used to feel the threats during elections.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen joins a CPP party rally in June 2017. CamboJA
Prime Minister Hun Sen joins a CPP party rally in June 2017. CamboJA

Cambodia has more than 660 media outlets. But just a handful of those are considered independent. Vichar’s experience underscores the marked difference by which independent media and pro-government or government media are treated.

While that has always been the case, in some ways the disparity has grown more marked in recent years. Many journalists interviewed cited the 2018 elections as a turning point.

“We have observed that the freedoms have declined since CPP lost seats at commune levels [in 2017], and continues until now,” said Nhim Sokhorn, a senior reporter at Voice of Democracy (VOD), an independent media outlet that gained prominence for its online reporting during the 2013 elections.

“Before the CNRP was dissolved, and National Democratic Institute was shut down, we saw that the press had more power. We could go reporting at polling stations, taking pictures, and we didn’t face threats,” he said.

2018: A turning point

The 2018 elections marked the first without a true opposition party in the running since Cambodia began holding open elections in 1993. Though 19 parties ran against the ruling CPP, none were considered legitimate opposition contenders and the election was widely termed a “sham.” Only the CNRP — which was formed in 2012 through a merger between the longstanding opposition Sam Rainsy Party and popular new Human Rights Party — was deemed a real opponent. In 2013, CNRP received nearly 45% of the votes and 55 of 123 parliamentary seats, marking the poorest showing by the CPP in more than a decade. In the 2017 commune elections, the opposition won nearly 44% of the votes. Had the opposition been permitted to run in the 2018 national elections, it’s not inconceivable they could have won.

But ahead of the national elections, the ruling party demolished the CNRP. In September 2017, CNRP president Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason — accused, spuriously, of plotting with the United States to overthrow the government. Other senior leaders fled the country and dozens of members and activists were arrested and charged.

At the same time, the country’s independent media ecosystem was slowly unravelling. By September 2017, more than a dozen independent radio stations saw their licenses suspended without notice — including five of VOD’s radio affiliates. Amid the heightened pressure, RFA shut down its Phnom Penh bureau, citing safety concerns for its staff. The suspensions had an outsized impact: millions of Cambodians still relied on radio as their main source of independent news, and independent stations were the only ones to broadcast RFA, Voice of America (VOA), and VOD — as well as to give and sell airtime to opposition programming. Without these stations, there could be little chance of open media.

That same month, the Cambodia Daily shut down — unable to pay a $6.3 million tax bill that many believed was politically motivated. A few months later, in May 2018, The Phnom Penh Post was sold to a Malaysian businessman with ties to the Cambodian government. Many of its staff quit in protest. The two English-language newspapers (the Post also ran a successful Khmer edition), were among the few publications to pursue rigorous watchdog reporting on corruption, illegal logging, and government malfeasance. Among the most prominent independent outlets, the newspapers also helped train many of Cambodia’s top journalists over the years.

Concurrently, government affiliated media — like CNC — have grown more professional. Armed with vast budgets, these stations increasingly attracted talented journalists away from the few independent outlets remaining. Though they cover the news respectably, they are unable to dive into the types of sensitive issues that set independent media apart.

By the time the 2018 elections rolled around, Cambodia’s media landscape had changed drastically from just one year prior.

Sokhorn, of VOD, noted that, “since then, press freedom has been under threat. Even though we are seeing that VOD is still allowed to broadcast, it is precarious.”

After the CNRP was dissolved, the National Election Committee in December 2017 announced there would be steep fines and punishment for anyone who undermined the trust in the elections “after RFA’s Khmer Service reported on low turnout for voter registration following the dissolution of the CNRP,” according to RFA. The following May, just weeks before the election, top government officials issued similar warnings amid calls by the CNRP for an election boycott. The vague language of the warnings put news outlets on edge.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, founder and former president of CNRP, is accompanied by his supporters after returning from self-exile to Cambodia ahead of the July 2013 elections after receiving a pardon for what many viewed as politically motivated convictions. CamboJA

“In 2018, the biggest challenge was that we couldn’t find the truth due to a lot of warning letters from the ministry; there were many arrows being pointed at us, so we did the best that we can to report it,” Sokhorn said. “I remembered that they had banned my livestreaming the process during election day, however, our team still worked to report because the election day is very important and people wanted to know whether it was carried out smoothly or if there were irregularities at each polling station,” he said.

Those warnings, said Sokhorn and others, also had a chilling effect on the larger population. The announcements “instilled fear in people and made them afraid to speak with journalists,” he recounted.

Another journalist at an independent media outlet recalled constant monitoring by local police and officials during the 2017 and 2018 elections. She asked that her name and outlet not be used out of fear for her personal security.

While covering the commune elections in Kandal province, authorities “monitored whether our questions were related to politics and election officials intimidated us by saying we could not ask which party people voted for.”

“For me, I just stressed that I had to interview people about their opinions related to voting and what their needs were such as infrastructure,” she said.

Even so, she said, “voters were hesitant to answer when we asked questions about elections related to which political party you voted for.”

Several journalists spoke about sources self-censoring, nervous in the presence of watching authorities — or even just doing so knowing that they could eventually get in trouble for their words.

Sun Narin, a senior reporter and coordinator at VOA, recalled similar pressure interfering with his ability to make his sources comfortable.

“Security guards [standing by during elections] who knew that we usually report about sensitive issues always monitored us closely,” he said.

 “When voters came to speak with us and they saw authorities or police were standing around, they felt that they couldn’t be free to express their opinions, so I think we were restricted,” he said. He noted that even before the 2018 elections, journalists who went to the field to get people’s opinions frequently came across local authorities and police following them, and taking their pictures in order report to their superiors.

To work around this monitoring, Narin said he learned how to be flexible — only asking “general questions” while police were present and then waiting until they leave to ask the serious questions. But the situation still forced both journalist and source to censor themselves, said Narin.

Prime Minister Hun Sen shows journalists his inked finger after casting his ballot during the 2017 commune election. CamboJA

“How can we work freely when [authorities] were sitting, listening to our interviews? And so our sources also restricted themselves,” he said. “They were taking photos and videos while we were interviewing. As a journalist, this is censorship for us. I feel I can’t ask sources good questions for my story and even if I do sources will not be able to give me honest and detailed answers as they want to. This will affect my story. I also feel that my sources can be badly treated by the police and authorities if they say something, and police know. Both my sources and I are then self-censoring.”

In spite of this ongoing intimidation and challenging landscape, journalists still pushed ahead. The stories that came out ahead of and during the 2018 elections were robust and detailed, highlighting controversial aspects of that vote such as high rates of spoiled ballots and voters feeling pressured by local leaders to go to the polls — rather than boycott as directed by the CNRP.

But journalists, too, admit to avoiding topics known to be overly sensitive. There is no direct censorship — Cambodian publications don’t submit their articles to a censors board. But some reporters spoke of self-censorship, avoiding stories or even particular phrases they suspected could get them in trouble. This is a regular protective tactic used by many.

“Generally, to avoid any risk, journalists are forced to do self-censorship rather than write problematic reports. It is difficult to avoid it, but sometimes local journalists have no better choice,” said a former Phnom Penh Post journalist, who asked not to be named out of concern of jeopardizing his current employment with a government-aligned media outlet.

Nop Vy, executive director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), said the majority of media outlets censor themselves, with just a handful “which dare to report on the sensitive cases,” and face danger in doing so.

“Some media outlets don’t have an internal policy or rule, but the working model is based on their newsroom managers. The risk of the media outlets facing withdrawal of the media license have also created more harms by putting more self-censoring of their media business and pushing them to split from their role as a watchdog,” he said.

Such self-censorship was creating a “bad environment for press freedom in the country,” he added. Nervous about retribution, many independent journalists were leaving the profession to become PR professionals or to work for pro-government media.

“When journalists have been arrested and face the legal actions then they will be working under fear. They will make them more careful and they don’t want to touch the big issues, especially the cases which are linked to the high ranking officers and tycoons.

Legal threats

The self-censorship comes amid very real fears. In 2020, CamboJA recorded 44 journalists detained for questioning or imprisoned. Twelve journalists were physically attacked and nine were threatened with violence. At the end of 2020, at least 10 journalists remained imprisoned or in pre-trial detention. The majority of those arrested “were charged with incitement to commit felony or extortion under Articles 495 and 232 of the Criminal Code,” the group noted in its Cambodian Journalism Situation Report 2020. The report was the first to present an annual breakdown of cases, but the country has been steadily dropping for the past five years in the Reporters without Borders (RSF)’s World Press Freedom Index. In 2020, Cambodia was ranked 144th among 180 countries, compared with 128 in 2016.

Several high-profile cases surrounding the last elections raised concern within the larger journalism community. In November 2017, former RFA journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were arrested on espionage charges shortly after the US government-funded broadcaster shut its Phnom Penh bureau. They spent more than nine months in pre-trial detention, during which time they were handed a second pornography-related charge. Though released on bail, the pair still face the possibility of punishment — up to 15 years in prison — as their cases have not been dropped. Similarly, then-Cambodia Daily reporters Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter were charged with incitement in June 2017 while carrying out election reporting in Ratanakkiri province. Fearing arrest and lengthy imprisonments, both reporters left the country. As with the RFA pair, the case has dragged on for years. Though the plaintiff withdrew his complaint in November 2020, leading the judge to withdraw charges, the prosecutor’s office later filed an appeal against the judge’s decision and the case remains ongoing.

Cases such as these weigh heavily on the minds of Cambodia’s reporters.

“What we are most concerned about is legal action against journalists. [We have seen them] use the criminal code to charge journalists with incitement even though we have a press law,” said VOD’s Sokhorn.

Cambodia has a robust Law on the Press, which lays out both the rights of the media and their obligations — along with the fines or suspensions media outlets might face if found guilty of violating them. But advocates note that the press law is rarely implemented and journalists, instead, are handed far more serious criminal charges. The government frequently uses the Article 495 charge of “incitement to commit a felony” in cases filed against critics, activists, and journalists. If found guilty, journalists can face up to two years in prison.

Ahead of the next elections, some journalists fear there will be more legal threats aimed at silencing what little reporting could come from a deeply controlled election.

“In a democratic society where elections are held every five years, the independent media plays an important role in informing citizens in making decisions about their preferred leaders and entrusting the fate of the country to those political parties,” said the former Phnom Penh Post journalist. “The media also plays an important role in bridging the voices and concerns between voters and those who stand for the election. Therefore, both positive and negative news is useful for voters to make the right decision. Restrictions on information are not a good way to promote free and fair elections, but rather a negative electoral environment.”

Fait accompli

The next commune elections are set to be held in 2022 and the next national elections will be held in 2023. Though it is far too early to predict what those elections will look like, currently the CNRP remains dissolved and it is hard to imagine the popular opposition party will be permitted to re-form and run for local or national seats.

In some ways, then, covering the upcoming elections could prove unusually easy. With the opposition thoroughly shut down, the ruling party fully in control, and dissent more shuttered than ever, much of the news is under control. Some journalists interviewed said they expected fewer complications or challenges than before.

“For me, there are no challenges for the upcoming elections, because we already know that the [CPP] will win the elections,” said VOD’s Sokhorn.

Others, however, said they still anticipated issues around freedom of movement and expression. An independent journalist who asked to remain anonymous said she expected that: “For the upcoming elections, I think the problems will still remain and we will face issues from the authorities as well as restrictions on freedom because there is no main opposition party.”

Narin of VOA said he, too, believed more challenges were to come in the upcoming elections “as we are seeing that freedom of expression has severely declined after the dissolution of the main opposition CNRP party. When there is restricted freedom for political parties, it will follow that the media will be restricted,” he predicted.

But should the opposition be allowed to contest the next election, he said, “I think there will still be more restrictions on the media if the opposition party is reinstated.”

Nop Vy, of CamboJA, said that he expected journalists would be using the coming years to prepare by improving their ability to report in a safe and secure way as well as by paying close attention to any new laws related to elections or political parties. Understanding these and disseminating the information to the public would be crucial to covering the next election.

Apart from the political challenges, some wondered if COVID-19 might still be endemic in Cambodia next year, casting a shadow over the already diminished elections. The government recently passed a controversial new law with steep punishments aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, which rights monitors say is dangerously vague in its language and could be used to go after government critics. Starting in late February 2021, after experiencing virtually no COVID-19 cases, the country experienced its first major outbreak with thousands infected and more than 15 deaths. The outbreak led to rare curfews and travel restrictions. Should the pandemic worsen in the coming year, that could impact election reporting, noted some journalists.

Romduol Chetra of the online media outlet Thmey Thmey, said: “For the upcoming elections, we can’t predict what will happen because Cambodia is now seeing an outbreak of community transmission of COVID-19. There will be restrictions in covering elections if COVID-19 remains.”

“In that case, I can say that there will be restrictions for voters and reporters for covering in the elections due to COVID-19.”

(This article acknowledging that it was produced through the initiative of ANFREL and CamboJA)

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