On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, journalists in Cambodia expressed concern that a new law authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus will be used by the government to restrict their ability to work.
The “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency” was unanimously approved by Cambodia’s one-party legislature and signed into effect on Wednesday, despite warnings from rights groups and a United Nations expert that it could be used to unnecessarily increase already heavy restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
The law was enacted as New York-based Human Rights Watch slammed authorities for using the outbreak to legitimize “arbitrary arrests” of opposition supporters and government critics, noting that at least 30 people have been detained for spreading “fake news” and other offenses since the start of the pandemic.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, Voice of Democracy editor in chief Min Pov said his reporters are already working under intense pressure because of the new legislation, which he said is worded vaguely and will allow authorities to target journalists by accusing them of violating national security or public order, and disseminating disinformation.
He said authorities recently alleged that his radio station had broadcast fake news following a story it ran about the coronavirus.
“This hurt the journalist’s feelings because the integrity of his story is being questioned,” Min Pov said. “It also affects his reputation and personal safety.”
Club of Cambodian Journalists president Pen Bona, who has worked for government-affiliated television station PNN, told RFA that reporters want to work freely, but will be forced to change how they approach stories if the government implements the law.
“If we look at the title of the law, we can assume the law will be imposed during a crisis,” he said. “It will affect everyone—freedom will be restricted regardless of whether one is a journalist or a regular citizen.”
Earlier this week, Ministry of Information spokesman Meas Sophoan vowed that the Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency will provide “social stability” during the crisis and would not be used to crack down on the media.
“Cambodia’s press freedom is getting better each year,” he said.
Cambodia was ranked 144th out of 180 countries in Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders’s (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index, down from 143rd a year earlier.
Nop Vy, the founder of CambodJa, a group of independent journalists who monitor press freedom in the country, told RFA that reporters are being threatened with prosecution “simply for doing their jobs” during the outbreak, when they are needed to provide a balanced perspective for society.
“The authorities are not fully cooperating with journalists, so the media cannot accurately report on what is taking place, nor can it act as a bridge between the people and the government,” he said.
Speaking with RFA on Friday, Ministry of Information’s Meas Sophoan defended the arrest of Sovann Rithy, a journalist working for TVFB, who was detained on April 7 for reporting a recent speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen about the coronavirus and charged with “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security” under article 495 of the criminal code.
The reporter had accurately posted on Facebook a comment by Hun Sen earlier that day telling motorbike-taxi drivers who go bankrupt because of the coronavirus outbreak to “sell your motorbikes for spending money … [because] the government does not have the ability to help.”
Sovann Rithy “did not respect the law or abide by a journalistic code of ethics,” Meas Sophoan said, adding that his ministry had warned the reporter over his work in the past, “but he did not listen,” so his broadcast license was revoked.
“He continued to breach the code of conduct, cause confusion, and incite the public,” he said, adding that the reporter had quoted Hun Sen “out of context.”
Meas Sophoan suggested that media groups and nongovernmental organizations provide legal assistance to Sovann Rithy but said that his case is “in the hands of the court, so only the court can decide his fate.”
CambodJa’s Nop Vy told RFA, however, that Sovann Rithy had only repeated what Hun Sen said verbatim, and did not breach any journalistic code of conduct with his reporting.
“What he did is protected under the freedom of the press, as long as he didn’t embellish the statement,” he said.
Shrinking press freedom
Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), told RFA that she has seen a serious decline in press freedom in Cambodia since Hun Sen launched a crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media ahead of the country’s July 2018 general election.
The crackdown saw RFA, English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily, and around 30 radio stations shuttered, as well as a major reshuffle in the management of the Phnom Penh Post after the country’s last independent daily was sold to a Malaysian investor with ties to Hun Sen.
“All these incidents seriously affected the space for press freedom,” Sopheap Chak said.
“We see that main actors [the media] who contributed to good governance have disappeared … It seems that members of the media and journalists who have been targeted are those who actively investigate social issues.”
Sopheap Chak urged the government to drop all charges against reporters and use its resources to respond to the threat of the coronavirus, rather than as part of “a campaign to punish.”
Ministry of Information spokesman Meas Sophoan responded to Sopheap Chak comments by saying that the government “respects the freedom of speech and the press, which is guaranteed by the constitution.”
“But what is the purpose of the freedom of speech if the intentions are bad,” he questioned.
“It doesn’t mean you have the freedom to say whatever you want and abuse other people … You need to think about boundaries when you are using freedom of speech.”
Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said declining protections for journalists in Cambodia “keeps a kind of general environment where they know that anything that they say can be used against them in court or [they could] end up in jail … just because they post some information that the government doesn’t like.”
“Cambodian journalists are—if not scared—at least clearly intimidated by the government and this has the effect of promoting self-censorship within the profession,” he said.
Bastard said that he doesn’t expect any improvements in press freedom in Cambodia in the near future “because the grip of the government and the ruling party on the media doesn’t seem to be likely to change.”
Within an environment of increasing restrictions, he advised reporters to focus on investigative journalism in partnership with NGOs to tackle issues with “some very strong public interest.”
“Try to focus on investigation … long-term investigation,” he said. “I think that’s the best way to combat either the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ or the use of government [labeling as] ‘fake news’ to censor journalistic work.”
In the meantime, Bastard called on Cambodia’s parliament to amend clauses in the Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency that present what he called “real threats to press freedom.”
“A trustworthy press is really important in a time of pandemic, so I think that is something the government and the ruling party should do.”
Brad Adams, New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, agreed that the role of the press is vital in a health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.
“People often say the most important time for accurate information is in a war, but I would say that this is even more important because every single person in the world has to make intelligent, informed decisions about how to behave,” he said.
“[In countries like Cambodia] people are not able to access the best information they can get to ensure their own personal safety and that of the people in their community. When the Cambodian government threatens people and arrests people for asking questions online or making public comments that are critical of the government’s response, that actually harms public health.”
Adams said he believes that the crackdown on the media and voices critical of the government’s response to the outbreak was orchestrated by Hun Sen to “protect himself and probably his crony friends from bad economic consequences.”
“Let’s face it, Hun Sen’s interest in the economy has always been more about himself and his cronies making profits than about the welfare of the Cambodian people,” he said.
“The only thing a respectable, responsible leader would do during this time would be to focus on public health … [Instead], the lack of information meant that people continued to have contact with other people when it wasn’t safe.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun and Sokry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.