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Update on Cambodia

 

2018 XpA Scores:
Freedom of Expression – 0.10 Civic Space – 0.11
Digital – 0.16 Media – 0.13
Protection – 0.08 Transparency – 0.10

 

Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party have dominated Cambodia’s political system for more than three decades. The country sits well below the regional average in its scores across all themes.

Last year, the XpA Report reported on a power grab in Cambodia, which was characterised by a vicious crackdown on freedom of expression – particularly on media and political freedoms. That concentration of power with Cambodia’s ruling party was cemented in 2018 with a sham election marked by freedom of expression violations.[1]

Unsurprisingly, Cambodia has consistently seen significant declines in its Civic Space scores over the last three years.

Figure 23: 

In the lead-up to the 2018 general elections, independent media was almost entirely shut down, with journalists, activists, and lawmakers fleeing the country.

As well as entirely banning the opposition party – which the Supreme Court dissolved – critical voices were silenced. In an attempt to control election reporting, a new code of conduct for covering elections was introduced for the media, which prohibited ‘personal opinion or prejudice’ and causing ‘confusion and loss of confidence in the elections’.[2]

Dozens of radio stations were ordered to shut down due to supposed licensing violations. Cambodia Daily was shut down by a hefty tax fine, and two reporters from US broadcaster, Radio Free Asia, were charged with espionage and faced up to 15 years in prison.[3]

A ministerial order granted new powers of surveillance and censorship in May, allowing the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications to block or close websites and pages containing content considered as ‘incitement, breaking solidarity, discrimination and wilfully creating turmoil leading to undermining national security, public interest and social order’.[4] All internet service providers are now obliged to ‘install software programs and equip internet surveillance tools to easily filter and block any social media accounts or pages’ deemed illegal.[5] Two days before the election, 17 media websites were blocked.[6]

Freedom of association was threatened in February, when the National Assembly amended Article 49 of the constitution to prohibit any activity that ‘affects the interests’ of Cambodia or its citizens.[7] The Assembly also amended Article 42 of the constitution to require citizens and political parties to ‘put the interests of the nation first’.[8] These vague new terms are alarming, in an atmosphere that already chokes expression and civic space, and seem to legally codify the attitudes of the government crackdown of 2017.[9]

Parliament also passed a new law against royal insult, in addition to an existing and draconian criminal defamation law; at least three were arrested under the new law in 2018.[10]

The Phnom Penh Post has been widely regarded as Cambodia’s only independent professional news site, since the government shut down dozens of radio stations over tax and licensing issues in 2017; but the paper was sold to a government-linked public relations firm, causing several editors and reported to resign over concerns about editorial independence.[11] In February, Cambodia Daily – another independent news website – was blocked.[12]

The crackdown did not end with the elections, nor with the death knell of media independence. Five human rights defenders (HRDs) from The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) were released in September and given suspended sentences of five years in prison, on fabricated charges of bribing a witness, after a 14-month pre-trial detention.[13]

 

[1] ARTICLE 19, Expression Agenda Report 17/18, 2 November 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/xpa-18/; see also ARTICLE 19, Cambodia: Ruling Party Claims Victory in Sham Election Marked by Vicious Crackdown on Freedom of Expression, 2 August 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/blog/resources/cambodia-ruling-party-claims-victory-in-sham-election-marked-by-vicious-crackdown-on-freedom-of-expression/

[2] IFEX, Unfree and Unfair: IFEX Condemns Cambodia’s Pre-election Crackdown on Free Expression, 25 July 2018, available at https://ifex.org/unfree-and-unfair-ifex-condemns-cambodias-pre-election-crackdown-on-free-expression/

[3] IFEX, Unfree and Unfair: IFEX Condemns Cambodia’s Pre-election Crackdown on Free Expression, 25 July 2018, available at https://ifex.org/unfree-and-unfair-ifex-condemns-cambodias-pre-election-crackdown-on-free-expression/

[4] Mech Dara and Hor Kimsay, ‘Three ministries set up web-monitoring group to look out for “fake news”’, The Phnom Penh Post, 7 June 2018, available at https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/three-ministries-set-web-monitoring-group-look-out-fake-news

[5] Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Joint Statement: Civil Society Rejects Government Attack on Freedom of Expression, 8 June 2018, available at https://www.cchrcambodia.org/index_old.php?title=Civil-Society-Rejects-Government-Attack-on-Freedom-of-Expression&url=media/media.php&p=press_detail.php&prid=694&id=5&lang=eng

[6] IFEX, Lessons in Resistance: Defying Repression and Impunity in Cambodia, 20 July 2018, available at https://ifex.org/lessons-in-resistance-defying-repression-and-impunity-in-cambodia/

[7] Andrew Nachemson and Mech Dara, ‘Updated: Lèse majesté law among changes to Cambodia’s Constitution and Penal Code’, The Phnom Penh Post, 2 February 2018, available at https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/updated-lese-majeste-law-among-changes-cambodias-constitution-and-penal-code

[8] South East Asian Press Alliance, Cambodia: Alarming Amendments, 22 February 2018, available at https://twitter.com/seapa/status/966522229142925313

[9] Mong Palatino, ‘Protests and a court victory amid state of emergency, constitutional amendments and media attacks’, IFEX, 1 March 2018, available at https://ifex.org/protests-and-a-court-victory-amid-state-of-emergency-constitutional-amendments-and-media-attacks-asia-pacific-in-february/

[10] ARTICLE 19, Cambodia: Joint UPR Submission on Threats to Freedom of Expression, 1 August 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/resources/cambodia-joint-upr-submission-on-threats-to-freedom-of-expression/, see also Mong Palatino, ‘Protests and a court victory amid state of emergency, constitutional amendments and media attacks’, IFEX, 1 March 2018, available at https://ifex.org/protests-and-a-court-victory-amid-state-of-emergency-constitutional-amendments-and-media-attacks-asia-pacific-in-february/

[11] Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Cambodian Civil Society Groups Condemn Ongoing Attacks on Freedom of the Media, 2018, available at https://www.cchrcambodia.org/index_old.php?title=Cambodian-Civil-Society-Groups-Condemn-Ongoing-Attacks-on-Freedom-of-the-Media-&url=media/media.php&p=press_detail.php&prid=691&id=5&lang=eng

[12] Mong Palatino, ‘Protests and a court victory amid state of emergency, constitutional amendments and media attacks’, IFEX, 1 March 2018, available at https://ifex.org/protests-and-a-court-victory-amid-state-of-emergency-constitutional-amendments-and-media-attacks-asia-pacific-in-february/

[13] Human Rights Watch, ‘Cambodia: Quash convictions of 5 rights defenders’, IFEX, 26 September /2018, available at https://ifex.org/cambodia-quash-convictions-of-adhoc-5-rights-defenders/

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