Report shows persistent restriction of fundamental freedoms6 min read

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Police and local authorities stop supporters attempting to mark the third anniversary of the killing of political analysts Kem Ley on July 10, 2019. Panha Chhorpoan
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A report released this week analyzing the state of fundamental freedoms in Cambodia showed the ongoing restriction of the freedom of association and freedom of expression between April 2019 and March 2020, noting a continued crackdown on political dissent and the silencing of free speech.

The fourth annual report, conducted from April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020 by the Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project (FFMP) and released on July 29, was compiled by analyzing media articles and incident reports, and carrying out polls and surveys of civil society groups, trade unions, and the public. 

FFMP is a joint initiative by local civil society groups the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Adhoc, and the Solidarity Center, in cooperation with the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law.

The report details specific times over the one-year period in which the government restricted and violated the fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, but the government’s human rights committee refuted that findings, saying the report is biased and was generated to support the group’s political agenda.  

The report notes 656 incidents of restricts of fundamental freedoms, many occuring during four specific periods: in May 2019, when former CNRP members were summoned to appear in court, in July of that year as supporters gathered to mark the third anniversary of the murder of Kem Ley, in September and October when former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy announced plans to return to Cambodia, and in February and March 2020 at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The space to exercise fundamental freedoms continues to be restricted,” the report says. “Key developments in Year Four included a continued crackdown on political dissent, silencing of speech cultivating an environment of self-censorship, arbitrary uses of the Cambodian Criminal Code … and a decrease in the public’s understanding of fundamental freedoms.”

Freedom of association was the most restricted in the one-year period, followed by freedom of expression, the report found, while the freedom of assembly was mostly upheld.

In year four, there were 338 restrictions and 186 violations of the freedom of association and 245 restrictions and 103 violations of freedom of expression, including 166 summonses and 99 arrests for the exercise of free speech.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia appears to utilize laws, not to protect fundamental freedoms, but rather to curtail civic space and restrict the exercise of fundamental freedoms,” the report says.

Most of the cases in which freedom of association was impeded were related to the opposition CNRP, with 182 restrictions, followed by 103 restrictions of civil society organizations’ freedom to assemble.

“CNRP-affiliates faced a systemic campaign of judicial harassment with 120 recorded charges, 103 arrests and 97 summonses,” the report says, adding that a total of 171 restrictions and 100 violations of freedom of association occurred against former or suspected CNRP supporters, with 120 CNRP-affiliated individuals charged, 103 arrested and 97 summonsed.

The report also documented 245 restrictions and 103 violations of freedom of expression, including 166 summonses and 99 arrests for the exercise of free speech, down from 310 restrictions and 244 violations the previous year. 

“Online dissent and criticism are consistently curtailed,” it said. “Almost half of all recorded violations of freedom of expression related to online expression, including 48 arrests.”

At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the FFMP also noted an increase in restrictions to freedom of expression, with 26 incidents including accusations, arrests, and charges for spreading “fake news” related to the virus between January and the end of March. 

Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, called on the government to acknowledge the declining state of fundamental freedoms in Cambodia and take concrete actions to enable the free exercise of these rights by every citizen.

“This is concerning as it reflects the curtailment of civic space and a population who don’t feel free to exercise their constitutional rights,” she said.

“The most concerning is the freedom of association, which experienced the greatest number of restrictions and violations,” Sopheap said, adding that restrictions to the freedom of association took place against a variety of individuals and groups, including former CNRP members and supporters, non-governmental organizations, trade unions, and informal community groups.

She said the government must refrain from arbitrary harassment of dissenting groups, including journalists, civil society activists and those with political views that differ from the ruling party and instead suggested the government support fundamental freedoms. 

“The fundamental freedoms of association, expression, and assembly are paramount to a healthy democracy and their adequate protection would benefit Cambodia as a whole,” Sopheap said.

According to the report, the FFMP aims to inform positive legislative developments to bring domestic law in line with international standards. 

“In order to comply with international human rights law and standards, laws affecting fundamental freedoms must be implemented according to the letter of the law and applied in a consistent, non-arbitrary manner,” the report stated.

However, Chin Malin, vice chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said July 29 that the report is not based on comprehensive scientific data and does not reflect the facts of the situation in Cambodia.

He said the findings are not accurate because the FFMP did not base its research on the laws of Cambodia.

“It means when they saw the law being implemented on political activists or human rights activists as the target, they made an evaluation that this is violating rights such as the right of assembly and freedom of expression,” Malin said.

He added that the NGOs who conducted the report failed to consider if the incidents reviewed were illegal.

“In my opinion, those organizations intended to release a biased report in order to protect their group, which has its own political agenda,” Malin said.

“If they just [make a report] to criticize the royal government, it is very dangerous to society because when releasing a report without comprehensive data, it seems it is meant to encourage those groups to engage in more [illegal] activities and encourage people to violate the law in Cambodia, so it will lead to insecurity,” he added.

He called on NGOs to carefully consider whether their reports will help uphold security and public order before publishing.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said July 29 that the ministry does not pay attention to organizations like the FFMP that consistently attack the government.

“Whatever we do they are not satisfied with, even though we have just amended the law on NGOs,” he said.

“We do not care about the report,” he added. “The important thing we are focusing on is winning the next elections in 2022 and 2023.”

“They [the government] have cracked down on people who are committing acts that are against the law,” he said.

When asked about the state of fundamental freedoms in Cambodia, Sopheak said, “You can assess by yourself whether the situation is good or not.”

“Is your family happy? And, do you have freedom of  movement? Have you eaten enough?” he asked.

Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said he was disappointed that the government had refused to recognize the report.

“If the government continues to reject and not acknowledge our report, we believe that these restrictions will occur in the future,” he said.

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