The likely prime ministerial successor Hun Manet has downplayed worsening restrictions on press freedoms, as civil society groups continue to warn of a deteriorating space for civil rights.
Manet, who is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, on Tuesday attended the commemoration of the World Press Freedom Day in Phnom Penh for the first time. Manet appeared at the event, which was attended by more than 100 journalists, as a representative of his father. The visit comes as Manet has increased his public profile after the CPP endorsed him in December as the party’s sole prime minister candidate.
“The law was created to protect freedom for all together, and the implementation of the rights of citizens does not violate the rights of other people,” he said.
He said that laws related to speech that affect rights are applied equally across society. Manet also noted that more than 2,000 media institutions have registered with the Information Ministry, and about 5,000 journalists are carrying out their duty in the Kingdom.
“If we say digital journalists, it is about reaching half the country’s population because each has the possibility of buying a smartphone, using Facebook, so that their rights and freedoms are being exercised every day,” Manet said.
However, civil society groups say the press landscape has only continued to close, especially as journalists face threats and the possibility of legal pressure and even detention in the line of their work. During the press freedom event, civil society members also pointed to the recent detention by immigration police of VOD reporter Mech Dara in Sihanoukville. Dara said police held him in custody for hours, eventually releasing him, after he refused to delete pictures he’d taken at the scene of a police action at the alleged site of a forced labor operation.
Chhan Sokunthea, the media development director at CCIM, said Manet’s speech did not address the issues journalists have been facing. She also drew issues with the speech the prime minister’s son delivered. Sokunthea expressed concerns about digital literacy in Cambodia, saying people have faced problems after using smartphones to share information.
“There are many people who are victimized due to [this],” she said, pointing out that not all of the people using smartphones are journalists.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith expressed disappointment that some journalist associations have reported the ministry stripped publications of their media licenses.
“We didn’t close media licenses, we have just temporarily suspended [them],” he said. He said that suspended media licenses involved “money extortion” from a company that transports sand.
“I think press freedom in Cambodia is better than European [countries],” Kanharith added.
He advised associations that protect journalists to conduct deep reporting before releasing a conclusion.
According to CamboJA’s quarterly monitoring report spanning January to March, there were 13 total incidents recorded against 23 journalists. Five journalists were imprisoned, four faced other legal actions, eleven experienced violence and threats, and three digital media outlets were stripped of their licenses.
Nop Vy, executive director at CamboJA, called on the Information Ministry to renew the media licenses that had been revoked.
“In my opinion, I am delighted that the Information Ministry might continue to renew their licenses because there are many impacts of revoking media licenses,” he said.
“First, they can’t provide information to people,” Vy added. “The second, is that there are threats to carrying out the right of freedom of the press, that journalists can broadcast what they want.”