Rights Organizations Reel as Authoritarian Cambodia Hosts Asia Media Summit

cambodia-hun-sen-aug-2017.jpg Hun Sen speaks during an environmental forum in Phnom Penh, Aug. 22, 2017.
Photo courtesy of Hun Sen’s Facebook page

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is slated to preside over the 16th Asia Media Summit as Cambodia is hosting the gathering this week, but rights organizations have expressed concerns about having an event in a country that restricts media and harasses journalists.

The summit, organized by the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), which was established under the auspices of UNESCO, will run from June 10-14 in Siem Reap.

According to the event’s official website, “the conference provides a unique opportunity for broadcasters in the region to share their thoughts on broadcasting and information.”

Meas Sophorn, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Information, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday that the focus of the event would be on sharing information on how to embrace the future of media—and not on the host country’s media situation.

“We will mostly focus on technical issues in each country in order to learn and share experiences and good lessons learned with one another in terms of implementing a digital system in this fourth industrial revolution,” he said.

The spokesperson confirmed that topics related to press freedom and freedom of expression would not be raised at the summit, but he said that Cambodia was chosen by the AIBD to host the event because it fully enjoys press freedom and freedom of expression.

Human Rights Watch said in a media release Sunday that “holding an Asian media meeting in Cambodia makes a mockery of freedom of expression and press freedom.”

The New York-based NGO called on summit participants to demand an end to the government’s suppression of media in Cambodia.

“It’s absurd for this UN-linked event to be held in Cambodia when the government has closed all independent local newspapers, kicked critical radio shows off the air, and effectively controls all TV stations,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.

“Countries attending the Asia Media Summit, and UNESCO, should confront Hun Sen and publicly call for allowing independent media outlets to reopen and ending the harassment of journalists,” he said.

Sophorn rejected the statement and said that press freedom in Cambodia is being promoted and protected by laws.

But other rights organizations echoed HRW in saying that the event should discuss the decline of press freedom and freedom of expression in Cambodia.

Sar Mory, a co-founder and Vice-President of the Cambodian Youth Network, said that the entire summit program should not focus on digital revolution and technologies when Cambodia’s own media is still restricted.

He stressed that international stakeholders should urge the Cambodian government to honor its legal obligations in protecting press freedom and freedom of expression and that to ignore the issue would ensure that no noticeable outcome would be achieved at the summit.

He also said that the government should be eager to discuss the issue, considering its stance that there isn’t a problem.

“Such an international event is a chance for the Cambodian government to explain in the presence of the international community about the decline of press freedom in Cambodia,” he said.

“It should be an opportunity for them to show their commitments in the name of a signatory country that ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in compliance with the spirit and principles as enshrined by the Cambodian Constitution,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media’s Executive Director Nop Vy said that the summit being held in Cambodia should not construe that there is a healthy press in Cambodia. He also said that if stakeholders fail to address the issue the summit would amount to no more than an extravagance of time and budget.

“If the event can help push for better improvement of press freedom in Cambodia, it should then become very helpful,” said Vy.

“Yet, if it is merely a gathering and fails to raise any requests or recommendations in order to push for a better environment of press freedom, I think such an event will simply not produce any kind of fruitful outcome,” he added.

“Cambodia’s government has gone to great lengths to silence the country’s previously vibrant press,” Robertson said. “The European Union and other trade partners should make clear that Hun Sen’s failure to reverse his repression of the media will come at a cost.”

HRW’s statement detailed how in the run up to the July 28 national election, media suppression in Cambodia intensified. It listed the closure of 32 FM radio frequencies (including those that broadcast RFA Khmer Service content), the arrest of two former RFA journalists, the closure of The Cambodia Daily newspaper, government harassment of citizens over Facebook posts, and the passage of repressive laws that give the government power to crackdown on media as it sees fit.

According to Reporters without Borders, Cambodian press freedom experienced a steady decline from 128 among 180 countries in 2016 to 132 in 2017, and then further downward to 142 in 2018.

Reported and Translated by RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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