Dozens of nongovernmental organizations marked International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists Friday by slamming Cambodia for failing to hold the perpetrators of crimes against reporters and rights activists accountable and demanding independent, transparent probes of their cases.
“When journalists are targeted by violence for what they write or report, freedom of expression is stifled and replaced by self-censorship and fear; the public is denied information; and the powerful cannot be held to account,” said the statement, signed by 42 watchdogs—including global groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and local organizations Adhoc and Licadho.
“When the state fails to investigate and punish violence against journalists, it sends a chilling message that attacks on journalists are permissible.”
The NGOs noted that since 1994, at least 13 journalists have been murdered in Cambodia for their reporting, and that all but one of them were “engaged in activities that posed a direct threat to powerful individuals within the Cambodian elite.”
In 11 of the cases, no one was convicted for the murders, the groups said, while in seven, no suspect was arrested or interrogated. “Serious concerns remain” in the two cases where a trial took place, they added.
And while no journalists have been killed in the last two years in Cambodia, reporters are regularly targeted with judicial harassment, according to the statement, including trumped-up charges, and media outlets perceived as critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime have been forced to close.
The groups noted that impunity in Cambodia is not limited to attacks against journalists, citing the murders of environmental activist Chut Wutty, trade unionists Chea Vichea and Ros Sovannareth, and political analyst Kem Ley as representative of “the thousands of instances of abuse” against outspoken critics that have “gone unaddressed” by authorities.
“We condemn the rampant impunity that harms Cambodian people and society and demand justice for all those whose rights have been cast aside,” the groups said.
“We call on the authorities to prosecute perpetrators of crimes committed against journalists and human rights defenders by undertaking effective, independent, and transparent investigations and prosecutions in accordance with international human rights standards … and to restore the integrity of the Cambodian legal system.”
Call for justice
Separately on Friday, Club of Cambodia Journalists president Pen Bona urged authorities to seek justice for the 13 slain journalists—Thou Char Mongkol, Nun Chan, Chan Dara, Thun Bun Ly, Chet Duong Daravuth, Pich Em, Dok Sokhan, Ou Saroeun, Chour Chetharith, Khim Sambo, Hang Serei Oudom, Suon Chan, and Taing Try.
Speaking in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service, he said it was a “good sign” that no reporters had been killed in Cambodia over the past two years, but questioned why there have been no breakthroughs in finding those responsible for the 13 murders since 1994, despite authorities claiming that they continue to investigate the cases.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment Friday, but has previously pledged that authorities “won’t close those cases until the perpetrators are brought to justice.”
But Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin on Friday hit out at the statement from the NGOs, telling RFA that “there is no impunity” in the cases of the slain journalists, as investigations continue.
“It isn’t impunity—it’s still at the investigative stage,” he said, adding that the cases are “complicated” and require more time to close.
Nop Vy of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, however, refuted Chin Malin’s claims, noting that the journalists had all been killed after reporting on sensitive issues, including corruption scandals involving powerful people.
He urged authorities to “be more responsible” because journalists are working to improve society, and said a culture of impunity had negatively impacted local reporting.
“We have seen a delay in bringing justice to victims,” he said, adding that authorities should “speed up investigations to end impunity.”
Friday’s statement came days after U.S. NGO Freedom House said in its annual “Freedom on the Net” report that of the 65 countries it monitors, Cambodia was one of five nations that “experienced the steepest deterioration in internet freedom over the last five years,” citing amendments initiated by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that led to an uptick in arrests for online political commentary.
Freedom House designated Cambodia “partly free” with a score of 55 over the past year, on a scale where zero represents “most free” and 100 indicates “least free,” noting a crackdown on online dissent by Hun Sen’s government that led to a “surge in arrests and prison sentences,” and ensured his party’s victory ahead of a July 29 election.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan slammed the Freedom House report Friday as “bogus and lies,” saying Cambodia “doesn’t have any law restricting internet freedom.”
Phay Siphan said Hun Sen’s regime is working to improve internet access for everyone throughout the country, but warned that internet freedom “doesn’t give users free rein to insult people or incite violence.”
When asked about claims in the report that China has provided Cambodia with training on how to monitor the internet use of its citizens, the spokesman said that authorities “only monitor the internet to fight against terrorism and for other security reasons.”
Requesting happier news
Also on Friday, Hun Sen’s wife and Cambodia Red Cross chairwoman Bun Rany urged members of the local media to “decrease reporting on crimes, rapes, and deaths from traffic accidents,” asking them to instead focus on the work her husband’s government has done to develop the country.
Pro-government media outlet Fresh News quoted Bun Rany during a donation distribution in Kampong Chhnang province as saying that “local TV stations don’t broadcast news about government efforts that have helped to develop the country, but only about violent crimes, suicides, traffic accidents, rapes and killings.”
“Every morning, I only see news about people dying, rapes and killings. I would like to use this forum to appeal to all TV stations to broadcast government achievements instead of bad topics.”
The Red Cross chairwoman did not specify what kind of developments she would prefer the nation’s news organizations to focus on.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.