Ahead of the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, some civil society groups say the press landscape of Cambodia has continued to deteriorate amidst official persecution, threats and the detention of 23 journalists during the first quarter of this year.
“We are concerned that threats and use of violence against journalists have increased by 50 percent, if compared to other cases such as taking legal action carried out in the Criminal Code, [including] revoking licenses, pretrial detention and imprisonment,” said Nop Vy, the executive director of CamboJA, during a Monday event attended by members of UNESCO and more than 20 other organizations.
According to CamboJA’s quarterly monitoring report spanning January to March, there were 13 cases of harassment against 23 journalists. Five journalists were arrested, four faced other legal actions, eleven experienced violence and harassment, and three digital media outlets were stripped of their licenses.
CamboJA also called on the court to drop charges against a journalist, Pen Noun, who was ordered to pay more than $1,000 to military officers involved in a land dispute he reported on.
Noun stated the Phnom Penh Municipal Court heard his case on January 6 without his presence and issued a verdict ordering him to pay $1,450 to a military police officer.
Last week, VOD reporter Mech Dara was detained for about two hours by General Department of Immigration in Sihanoukville after refusing to delete pictures he’d taken of a facility alleged to have been used by a forced labor operation.
“He [immigration police officer] had [threatened to use] handcuffs against me,” Dara said. “If there is a law for taking pictures in public, and I need a permission like this, I might resign to be a farmer.”
However, Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn said during a Monday panel discussion that journalists’ rights and freedoms need to be in line with the law.
“When you [journalists] demand the right, you have an obligation to be responsible in line with the laws,” he said, pointing to the Press Law and stating that broadcasting disinformation or impacting the dignity of other people could lead to lawsuits.
But freelance journalist Vann Vichar echoed his peers in saying that journalists’ freedom of expression has been restricted since the dissolution of the main opposition group CNRP.
“The current right to freedom of journalists has been threatened,” he said, citing his experience in 2019 of being detained and released in Banteay Meanchey province while covering the unsuccessful return of former opposition figure Sam Rainsy.
Looking at the broader picture of freedom of expression, Srey Sotheavy, executive director at the Alliance for Conflict Transformation, said she was concerned by the potential implementation of the National Internet Gateway. The controversial state proposal would route all internet traffic through a single, government-controlled portal, and Sotheavy said the measure is little-understood by local people.
“I think that both community and civil society groups remain concerned [about NIG], because it will narrow the space of rights and freedoms,” she said.
She pointed out members of the community, including youths, who expressed opinions about authorities may face threats and arrest.
Last year, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ annual Fundamental Freedoms Monitor Project (FFMP) recorded a total of 454 incidents of restrictions to basic rights in 2021.
The report noted the number of restrictions and violations peaked in November, when multiple political activists and politicians faced legal action or restrictions on their parties’ activities.