Attacks on the Press 2000: Cambodia

WHILE CAMBODIA ENJOYS A SUBSTANTIALLY FREE PRINT MEDIA, local journalism continues to suffer from bitter political divisions and frequent clashes with government authorities.

Press freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution, and the Khmer-language press is famous for taking dramatic liberties in print, often engaging in name-calling and attacks on various political leaders. Speaking to a local media seminar in January, Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed that such invective was proof of Cambodia’s vibrant democracy. Even so, the government still tried to cow journalists into submission. A day after the seminar in which Hun Sen proclaimed the sanctity of press freedom, for example, his chief spokesman, Khieu Khanarith, resurrected the idea that the government should have the power to license reporters. Cambodia had too many journalists, Khanarith said.

In July, Information Minister Lu Lay Sreng summoned Cambodian newspaper publishers for what he described as a “friendly talk.” Journalists took it as a warning to mute their criticism of the government. The meeting followed a one-month suspension imposed on the Cambodia News Bulletin, a weekly Khmer- language newspaper, for allegedly defaming the royal family by reprinting an article on the sensitive issue of royal succession that had originally appeared in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. It was the second such action against the Bulletin in 2000.

Earlier, twenty Cambodian publishers had sent an open letter to the government, calling for the suspension to be lifted. Ou Souvan, the activist publisher of the newspaper Samleng Youvachun Khmer (“The Voice of Khmer Youth”), described the meeting with the information minister as “another kind of pressure…on journalists.”

Such incidents marked a structural conflict between a freewheeling press with few professional constraints and a strong government with authoritarian tendencies. Over time, fortunately, the press has been growing stronger and the government somewhat more tolerant.

With political infighting diminished, the better Cambodian newspapers have started tackling sensitive human rights issues and the controversial question of land rights in rural areas. At year’s end, it seemed that years of training by non-governmental organizations and international agencies might be starting to pay off. Few experienced journalists survived the genocidal Pol Pot regime, which was followed by a 1979 Vietnamese invasion and 12 years of civil war. Today, however, press organizations are common, and a professional degree program in journalism is being established at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

The days when journalists were frequently beaten or killed in Cambodia seem to be fading. With Hun Sen in firm control of a coalition government that now contains his former enemy, Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the royalist party FUNCINPEC, a pattern of relative restraint on the part of the government and greater professionalism in the media is beginning to emerge. FUNCINPEC and the government no longer trade barbs in dueling tabloids, and that fact alone has eased tensions. It seems unlikely that the government’s threats to license journalists will be carried out, and King Norodom Sihanouk, who judges cases of defamation against the royal family, frequently pardons journalists accused of such crimes.

Freedom of expression, however, does not extend to radio and television. The government has refused to grant broadcast licenses to opposition figures, and maintains tight control over most broadcast news.

Cambodia News Bulletin

The Ministry of Information imposed a temporary suspension on the Cambodia News Bulletin (Pritbat Pordamean Kampuchea), a bilingual fortnightly newspaper published in English and Khmer from the capital city, Phnom Penh.

Officials charged that the Cambodia News Bulletin had published articles that defamed “members of the Royal Government,” and ordered it to suspend publication for 30 days, according to a statement released by the paper’s editorial board. The statement added that the ministry’s notice did not cite specific issues or articles to support its allegations. The Information Ministry also notified local printing presses that they were not allowed to print the Bulletin while the suspension order remained in effect.

In an April 6 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, CPJ asked him to ensure that the suspension order was lifted immediately. The paper resumed publishing in May.

Cambodia News Bulletin

The Cambodia News Bulletin (Pritbat Pordamean Kampuchea), a weekly published in English and Khmer from the capital, Phnom Penh, was suspended for the second time in 2000.

On July 13, the Information Ministry wrote to the Bulletin‘s editor, Khieu Phirum, imposing a 30-day suspension based on a July 10 article on royal succession in Cambodia. The ministry also ordered the confiscation of all copies of the publication and instructed its printers not to produce further issues during the ban.

The ministry charged that the offending story, “The Search for One Who Would Be King,” violated the constitution, which states that “The King shall be inviolable.” The piece originally appeared on July 1 in the South China Morning Post and was translated from English into Khmer by the Bulletin.

The ministry also accused the Bulletin of violating Article 12 of Cambodia’s Press Law, which forbids the publication of “any information that may affect national security and political stability,” and of ignoring technical publication requirements outlined in Article 9 of the law.

CPJ protested the censorship of the Cambodia News Bulletin in a July 18 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, noting that if a publication was suspected of violating the law, redress should be sought through the judicial system.