PHNOM PENH—The author of a book deemed critical of the Cambodian government is in hiding after he received an anonymous death threat, according to the opposition party with which he is linked.
Pen Puthsphea, a journalist with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) Candlelight Radio program, received a telephone call July 19 from a person who told him to stop reporting or face physical harm.
SRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua said the author believes his life is in danger.
“He is in hiding because he is scared for his safety after receiving a death threat and being told to stop doing his job by an anonymous caller,” she said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's government previously pulled the author’s two textbooks for exam preparation from store shelves, saying they included “unsuitable” political content.
“Confiscating his book is a restriction on freedom of expression in Cambodia,” Mu Sochua said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Thursday that the reported death threat isn't under investigation because neither Pen Puthsphea nor the SRP have lodged a complaint.
“We have not seen any complaints from the SRP about the death threat. We are waiting for an official complaint so that police can conduct an investigation and bring the perpetrator to justice,” he said.
On July 5, Education Minister Im Sethy sent a letter requesting that Information Minister Khieu Kanharith ban and confiscate volumes I and II of Pen Puthsphea’s textbook General Knowledge, published in January and December of 2006, respectively.
The letter highlighted passages on pages 146 and 147 in volume I and pages 100 and 101 in volume II as “unsuitable” because of apparent criticism of Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party.
One of the passages, according to the Phnom Penh Post, states that widespread corruption in the Cambodian government is hobbling national progress.
“The government, which is currently led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, will not be able to lead Cambodia towards progress in the near future because corruption occurs from the top level of the government down to the local level and law enforcement and the practice of human rights are still below zero,” the passage reads.
Later in July, several vendors in Phnom Penh reported visits from police and officials who pulled the books from their shelves or purchased all copies in stock.
Vendors received warnings against selling the textbooks, while the book’s publisher was told to cease printing new copies.
Despite official provisions for media freedom in Cambodia, journalists and authors are routinely targeted with threats and defamation lawsuits for publishing information critical of authorities.
In 2007, political scientist Teang Narith was arrested for writing a book condemning Hun Sen’s government and ministers for their alleged role in a 1997 grenade attack on the SRP in front of the National Assembly.
His book was confiscated and he was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in prison.
A Cambodian appeals court last year upheld the prison sentence of former newspaper director Hang Chakra, who was jailed for "disinformation" after he ran an article alleging high-level government corruption.
The former director of Khmer Machas Srok was sentenced in 2009 to a year in jail by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and was fined 9 million riel (about U.S. $2,250).
Hang Chakra, released from prison in April, refused during his hearing to identify sources for the article, citing protections under Cambodia’s 1995 Press Law. He was tried under the tougher 1992 UNTAC [United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] Criminal Code.
Since 1992, a number of journalists have been murdered and many have fled the country. Hun Sen has been in power for more than two decades and won a much disputed landslide election victory in 2008.
In its latest report on media freedom worldwide, the nonprofit press freedom group Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 126 out of 175 countries worldwide, notably citing the government's record of targeting journalists allied with the political opposition.
While "major political parties had reasonable and regular access to the print media," the U.S. State Department said in its most recent report on human rights worldwide, "all major Khmer‑language newspapers received financial support from political parties and were politically aligned."
"The government, military forces, and ruling political party continued to dominate the broadcast media and influence the content of broadcasts," it said.
Journalists, publishers, and distributors were subject to harassment and intimidation in 2009, "including one threat by gunshot, and most reporters and editors privately admitted to some self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal," the report said.
Original reporting by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.