Attacks on the Press 2002: Cambodia

While Cambodia’s many boisterous newspapers are generally free from official sanction, the broadcast media remain captive to the political interests of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his allies. Because Cambodia has a low literacy rate and poor newspaper distribution outside the capital, Phnom Penh, the press there will not be completely free until restrictions on radio and television are lifted.

The government, the military, and the two parties in the ruling coalition, the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and the National United Front for a Neutral, Peaceful, Cooperative, and Independent Cambodia, dominate the broadcast media. The opposition Sam Rainsy Party has been trying in vain for several years to obtain a broadcast license.

During local elections on February 3, opposition parties ran full slates of candidates, but the broadcast media virtually froze out opposition candidates. A European Union (EU) mission reported that state TV devoted most of its coverage to the government and the CPP, leaving opposition parties with almost nothing. “Coverage by private Cambodian TV showed a similar bias,” according to the EU. In addition, the National Election Commission canceled a series of broadcast roundtables, which were to give equal time to eight parties in the elections, before the poll.

Cambodia has some 200 Khmer-language newspapers, most of them aligned with political parties and published in Phnom Penh. A press law requires newspapers to be licensed and allows the government to suspend or cancel licenses; national security considerations, meanwhile, limit constitutional guarantees of free speech. Still, even pro-government papers frequently criticize officials, sometimes in harsh language. Given the highly politicized environment, journalists have had trouble organizing for their own protection. There are six different and competing press associations, which are seldom able to work together for a common goal.

Without an effective press freedom group, Cambodian journalists are vulnerable to legal harassment. In September, Hun Sen intervened to release two journalists from the daily pro-government newspaper Chakraval who were arrested and charged for allegedly defaming two senior police officials. In May, Dam Sith, editor of the opposition newspaper Khmer Conscience, was convicted of libel and defamation for criticizing Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the National Assembly, which the prince leads. Ranariddh, a former government foe, is now Hun Sen’s chief coalition partner. “It is our impression that this shows the judge is more intent on doing politics than finding justice,” said Pen Samithy, the president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists.

In April, another opposition newspaper was ordered to pay a businessman and two military officers nearly US$20,000 in a defamation suit, though the parties later settled the case without damages being awarded. In 2001, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong sued the American-owned, English-language Cambodia Daily for defamation after it printed two stories alleging that he had once run a Khmer Rouge prison camp. The case was under appeal at year’s end.

2002 marked the 10th anniversary of one of the most interesting and independent newspapers in Asia, the Phnom Penh Post. Started by an American couple after the United Nations restored a measure of peace to the country in 1992, the biweekly Post has been an important source of in-depth stories and analysis since its inception and has also served as a training ground for Cambodian journalists.