Freedom of the press in Cambodia has increasingly declined, with reporters exposing government corruption and other illegal activity coming under deadly attack and facing death threats, including from the authorities, according to a rights group and local journalists.
Those killed or receiving threats were mostly reporters who had written articles exposing government corruption or documenting the relationships between powerful government officials and the illegal logging industry, Cambodia-based rights group Adhoc said in a report.
At least a dozen journalists have been killed in Cambodia in the nearly two decades since U.N.-backed elections were held following decades of civil war, according to the report.
It said that freedom of the press in the country has increasingly declined over the nearly two decades under review by the group.
Adhoc said 17 journalists received death threats and an additional 12 were imprisoned over the same period. Another reporter was seriously wounded in an attack, the group said.
According to the report, 42 newspapers and magazines have been ordered to shut down by Cambodia’s Ministry of Information since 1993, when the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) oversaw elections that ended the notorious Khmer Rouge rule in the country and elected Prime Minister Hun Sen to power.
“Those journalists who were killed used to receive many death threats, but would not back down,” Adhoc Senior Investigator Chan Soveth said.
He said among the imprisoned journalists were opposition party-affiliated newspaper editors and publishers following complaints from the government.
The group identified the murdered journalists as Tho Cha Mongkul, Noun Chan, Ek Mongkul, Sao Chandara, Chet Doungdararith, Thun Bunly, Pech Em, Ou Savoeun, Khem Sambo, Chou Chetharith, Hang Serei Odom, and foreign journalist Michael Senior.
Hang Serei Odom was looking into claims of illegal logging and extortion when he went missing on Sept. 10 this year. His battered body was found two days later in the trunk of his car.
Military officer An Bunheng and his wife, known by her nickname “Vy,” were taken into custody the next day after police and a court prosecutor said they had found evidence linking them to the crime at the couple’s restaurant in Cambodia’s northeastern Ratanakiri province.
An investigation is ongoing.
But Adhoc said Cambodian authorities have brought few suspects to trial over the cases of murdered journalists.
It said that more recently, journalists in Cambodia were being targeted with “defamation” or “disinformation” lawsuits, which can carry prison sentences in addition to heavy fines on conviction.
Dissident Cambodian radio station chief Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison earlier this month for allegedly masterminding an “anti-state rebellion” in clashes over land rights in Kratie province. He had been arrested twice before for his political activities and for "defaming" the government.
Rights groups have said the charges against him were intended as political retaliation by Prime Minister Hun Sen for allowing critical views of the government to be aired on his independent radio station.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA’s Khmer service that Cambodia allows for a free press, but said that reporters have a duty to act “professionally” and “responsibly.”
“A free press must abide by two rules: it must be professional and responsible. This is most important—all news must be responsibly reported,” he said.
The leading editors of two Cambodian newspapers said that the response from authorities to articles critical of the government is often too harsh, and sometimes intimidating.
Kay Kimsong, editor in chief of the Phnom Penh Post’s Khmer language edition, said his newspaper’s reporters sometimes receive threats from local authorities.
“Sometimes the local authorities even want to confiscate our reporters’ cameras,” he said.
Hang Chakra, the editor in chief of the opposition daily Khmer Machas Srok who was imprisoned for a year in 2009 on “disinformation” charges after he ran an article alleging high-level government corruption, said his newspaper had received 222 threats since it was established in 2007.
“Government officials are discriminating against my newspaper because it is opposition party-affiliated. The government won’t respond to any of our media inquiries,” he said.
“We can’t write a fair and balanced story because we can’t get any response from the government, but then they accuse us of being pro-opposition. We are an independent newspaper.”
In its latest report on media freedom worldwide, the nonprofit press freedom group Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 117 out of 179 countries worldwide, notably citing the government's record of targeting journalists allied with the political opposition.
“The government, military forces, and the ruling political party continued to dominate the broadcast media and influence the content of broadcasts," the U.S. State Department said of Cambodia in its most recent report on human rights worldwide.
“There were 10 domestic television stations and approximately 50 radio stations. All television stations and most radio stations were controlled or strongly influenced by the CPP, although a few were independent or aligned with other parties,” it said.
The Cambodian People’s Party is the party of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.