Cambodian Journalists Face Violence, Threat of Legal Action: Media Watchdog

CamboJA says in a report that such measures are causing the country’s reporters to self-censor.
Cambodian Journalists Face Violence, Threat of Legal Action: Media Watchdog Uon Chhin (L) and Yeang Sothearin (R) speak with reporters outside the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, July 15, 2020.

Journalists in Cambodia are regularly subjected to physical violence and legal action on the job, undermining their role in a democratic society and their ability to cover stories involving powerful officials, according to a new report by Cambodian media watchdog CamboJA.

In its annual Cambodian Journalism Situation Report, CamboJA said it recorded 35 cases of harassment against 72 journalists in 2020, based on news reports, social media posts, court documents and interviews, and that more than 42 of them were detained for questioning or imprisoned.

At least 22 journalists were either attacked or threatened with violence while working, the group said, and one journalist died in what police concluded was a traffic accident without carrying out what it termed a “proper investigation.”

According to CamboJA, Cambodian authorities continued to use the threat of legal action to intimidate journalists in 2020, particularly the charges of “incitement to commit felony” or “extortion” under Articles 495 and 232 of the Criminal Code. 

As of December, at least 10 journalists remain in prison in the country, eight of whom are in pre-trial detention for criminal charges, it said.

“The ongoing imprisonment, detention and physical threats against journalists undermines the media’s role in a democratic society and strikes fear in those who cover stories or cases involving powerful officials,” CamboJA said in its report.

“Journalists have generally been unsuccessful when turning to the courts for justice or protection, even when they are able to identify perpetrators such as military police, district security guards, timber traders and cock fighters. This impunity for crimes against journalists compounds the sense of fear and futility for those seeking to expose bad actors inside and outside of government.”

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, CamboJA executive director Nop Vy said that in addition to the threat of harassment and arrest, journalists also lack any support from relevant authorities.

He also called the overall situation of press freedom in Cambodia in 2020 significantly worse than in previous years.

“Pending cases involving journalists related to ethics and their profession as journalists should be dropped,” he said.

“Stop filing lawsuits against them because all these cases create an environment of fear that impacts press freedom.”

Reactions to report

Ministry of Information Meas Sophorn responded to the claims in the report by saying that journalists in Cambodia “enjoy freedom of the press” and suggesting that certain NGOs were “not reporting the truth” about the situation.

“In accordance with the law, they can fulfill the requirements of their profession freely and fully in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” he told RFA

“There are many journalists working in the profession, and the number is increasing. However, journalists working in Cambodia are held accountable. If a journalist commits a crime, he must be held accountable before the law.”

Media director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), Ith Sothoeut, told RFA that when authorities use the criminal code to arrest journalists it forces them to self-censor.

Ith Sothoeut called on the authorities to apply the country’s Press Law in support of journalists who report on the shortcomings of powerful officials and other problems in society.

“As CambodJa mentioned in its report, so far, the Press Law has not been enforced in nearly all cases involving journalists,” he said.

“On the contrary, the criminal code has been applied, which is unfortunate for journalists.”

Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin—who had worked as an editor, reporter and news anchor, and a photographer and videographer for RFA’s Khmer Service, respectively—were taken into custody in November 2017. They remain out on bail but in legal limbo after a series of appeals have been rejected by courts.

They were charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital in September that year and were slapped with additional charges for illegally produced pornography in March 2018. If convicted of the first charge, they could face a jail term of between seven and 15 years.

Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Cambodia 144th out of 180 nations in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, down from 143rd a year earlier, citing a crackdown on independent media in the lead up to the country’s 2018 general election.

The crackdown on the independent media came amid a wider attack by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition and NGOs that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats up for grab in the ballot.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Swervice. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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