The jailing of a prominent radio journalist in Phnom Penh and assaults
on journalists in remote, lawless regions raised concerns about Cambodia’s commitment to press freedom guarantees enshrined in its 1993 Constitution and 1994 Press Law.
On October 11, police arrested Mam Sonando for an interview he conducted on Radio Sambok Khmum (Beehive Radio) FM 105 about territorial concessions that the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen planned to make to Vietnam to secure a border demarcation treaty. Journalists Sok Pov Khemara of Voice of America and Ath Bunny of Radio Free Asia fled to Thailand later in the month, fearing that they might be arrested for related reports that were rebroadcast over Beehive Radio. Both the European Union and the United Nations condemned Sonando’s detention. Several trade union activists were also imprisoned for discussing the concessions.
Sonando, a former opposition politician, was charged with criminal defamation. He was refused bail while the government conducted an investigation, which his family was told could take up to six months. Sonando, 64, was being held with 11 other prisoners in a poorly ventilated cell slightly larger than 6 by 20 feet (2 by 6 meters). The government later filed an additional charge of “disseminating false information,” which increased the potential prison term to two years.
It was the second time that the government had imprisoned Sonando for his broadcast journalism. He was jailed for 11 days in February 2003 for broadcasting inflammatory comments during riots that led to the destruction of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh.
The government detained another journalist, Hang Sakhorn, on criminal defamation charges on December 2. The charges stemmed from an article in the Khmer-language Ponleu Samaki alleging a state prosecutor had accepted a bribe.
Concerns about further restrictions on the media stemmed from an October 21 order that banned journalists from entering and reporting from law courts in Phnom Penh. Journalists protested the order, arguing that the ban breached press freedom guarantees. Chev Keng, the court’s director, repealed the order on October 31, but new restrictions on using cameras and tape recorders in the courtroom were maintained.
Phnom Penh–based journalists told CPJ that the government’s crackdown had led to increased self-censorship by the print media. Pen Samitthy, editor-in-chief of Rasmei Kampuchea, the country’s largest Khmer-language daily, said the arrests represented a “backward step” for press freedom and that his newspaper was more reluctant to publish criticism of the government. He noted that only one of the country’s 15 or so Khmer-language publications ran critical commentary about Sonando’s arrest.
After Hun Sen’s Cambodia’s People Party seized power in a 1997 political purge in which scores of opposition supporters were murdered, six publications critical of the government were closed down. Since then, only one Khmer-language newspaper, Monea Sicha, has regularly presented the opposition’s views.
Michael Hayes, editor-in-chief of the English-language daily Phnom Penh Post, one of the country’s few independent newspapers, told CPJ that “government thugs” frequently harassed him and accused him of siding with the Khmer Rouge, a radical Maoist group that killed as many as 1.7 million people when it controlled Cambodia in the 1970s. Hayes said that the Phnom Penh Post sometimes ran stories and pictures about former members of the Khmer Rouge now in government. Hayes said that he was once assaulted by unidentified assailants while walking home from work, and he believes the attack could have been related to his newspaper’s reporting on the Khmer Rouge.
The situation for journalists in Cambodia’s lawless provinces remained precarious. Nhen Sokha, a journalist with the Khmer daily Kampuchea Thmei, was assaulted on September 12 by a military intelligence officer in Pusat province after reporting on illegal logging. The journalist later filed a lawsuit against the officer. The case was pending in Pusat’s provincial court.
Ratha Visal, a reporter with Radio Free Asia, was hit and injured by a military vehicle while taking photographs of alleged illegal logging presided over by military officials in remote Ratanakiri province on September 30. Visal said a military official fired three shots into the air before running him over, according to reports compiled by the Cambodian Association to Protect Journalists (CAPJ), a press freedom advocacy group.
The Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ), the country’s largest press association, urged the government to open independent investigations into the mysterious traffic accidents that resulted in the deaths of two provincial journalists, one of whom had reported about alleged official complicity in illegal logging in Kampong Cham province, and the other about police corruption in Koh Kong province. As of November, the CCJ said, the government had not taken up their request. The journalists’ names were withheld by the CCJ for security reasons.
The Cambodian government maintained tight control over the electronic media, dominating the news agenda for all seven television stations and all but two radio frequencies. In November, the government barred state-owned television and radio stations from reading or commenting on newspaper stories on the air. Widespread poverty and illiteracy have stunted the development of any self-sustaining, provincially oriented print media. To promote more regional news reporting, the U.S. aid organization Care International volunteered in June to help establish the country’s first community radio station. The Ministry of Information rejected the proposal and delayed drafting legislation for the licensing of such stations.