The Cambodian government is increasingly restricting press freedom, a new report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found, the same week that two journalists were arrested on extortion allegations.
Journalists in Cambodia are increasingly being subjected to various forms of harassment and pressure, as well as violence, amid growing curtailments on civic space in the country, according to the OHCHR report released on August 3rd.
Sixty-five journalists were interviewed for the report and all of them stated that they had faced some form of interference in the course of their work.
More than 80 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced surveillance and disproportionate or unnecessary restrictions, including in relation to access to information.
“The findings in this report are very concerning, and I urge the authorities to take on board our recommendations to ensure the media can carry out their vital work fairly and transparently for the benefit of all Cambodians,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in a statement.
“A free, independent and pluralistic media plays a central role in every democratic society. When we defend media freedom, we defend justice, good governance and human rights,” she added.
The very week the report was released, two online journalists were detained and charged with extortion in Kampot province.
Mey Chumnith, one of the owners of online-only channel MCN TV Online, and his assistant, Hun Kimsreng, have been placed in pre-trial detention, according to Mann Boret, the Kampot provincial court spokesman.
Mao Chanmathurith, Kampot provincial police chief, said the two were arrested on Monday after “they used press cards arbitrarily to commit a messy thing [extort money] but I do not know the amount of money.”
He declined to comment further on who the journalists allegedly tried to extort or why.
Articles 363 and 364 of the Criminal Code state that extortion is punishable by up to five years in prison.
MCN TV Online has a Facebook page with just over 900 followers but no website. Regular reports are uploaded on social issues, poor families seeking help, gambling and crime.
Sun Moeun, an employee at MCN TV Online, said he had spoken on the phone to his boss Mr. Chumnith following his arrest but didn’t know the full details of the charges. He said only that he was told the arrest had happened while his two colleagues were trying to buy gasoline.
The OHCHR report said between 2017 and the commune elections in June this year, they had documented cases of 23 journalists who had faced criminal charges for disinformation, defamation or incitement as a result of their work.
Laws and other instruments have been adopted that empower the authorities to censor and place journalists and others under surveillance, the report said, and extend the government’s ability to curtail media work and freedom of expression through the courts.
Information Ministry spokesman, Meas Sophorn, rejected the OHCHR findings, saying they came only from interviews with anti-government journalists and didn’t reflect the overall reality of the media in the country.
“I think that this report is not strange and nothing new that we have to be concerned about because the group of people who have written the report have only collected one side of the information,” he said.
“It is not right to conclude that Cambodian press freedom is under attack or restricted,” Mr. Sophorn added. “The situation of press freedom in Cambodia is constantly evolving, and is not as dark as what is written in this report.”
He said that according to the laws of Cambodia, journalists can carry out their work freely anywhere in the Kingdom. In addition, he said there are about 2,117 media institutions, national and international, that have been registered at the ministry.
However, research by the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), conducted between April and June this year, echoed the UN’s findings that press freedom is shrinking in Cambodia.
CamboJA recorded 11 cases of harassment against 17 journalists during that period, five of whom were arrested. The other five faced legal action, six experienced harassment and threats, and one was detained for questioning.
Ith Sothoeuth, media director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said the UN report was very concerning.
“When journalists cannot fulfill their duty freely, it will impact democratic space,” he said.
Instead of denying the report’s veracity, he said, the government should look into the criticisms contained in it.