Government suppression of a hard-hitting investigative report that implicated senior government officials in illegal logging represented a significant reversal of the modest press freedom gains of the previous two years.
Britain-based environmental watchdog Global Witness released the 95-page report, “Family Trees,” on June 1 and several local media groups detailed its findings, which included accusations against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and personal bodyguard unit. Four days later, the Information Ministry banned and moved to confiscate hard copies of the report, claiming that its conclusions could “incite political problems.” Information Minister Khieu Kanarith was quoted in the local media as saying that the confiscation “does not concern the freedom to publish and disseminate information, which the government strongly supports.”
Media groups that defied the ban came under threat from officials and unknown assailants. Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporter Lem Pichpisey received an anonymous death threat on his mobile telephone in which the caller said he “could be killed” if he continued reporting on illegal logging. Lem told CPJ that he was routinely followed by plainclothes police officers in the central Kompong Tham province, where he had reported on illegal logging, and in the capital, Phnom Penh. On June 16, fearing for his safety, Lem fled to Thailand, where he lived in exile for more than a month.
Stories like Lem’s about Cambodia’s illegal logging operations were potentially explosive. Under pressure from foreign donors, which contribute more than half of the country’s annual budget, the government had agreed to curb rampant illegal logging. News reports implicating senior officials in the trade were particularly sensitive because they threatened relations with crucial financial supporters.
Although CPJ and other press freedom organizations called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to launch an independent investigation into the threats against Lem, no government action was taken. In response, CPJ conducted a research mission to Cambodia and, in October, published a special report, “Cambodia’s Battling Broadcasters,” on the government’s strained relations with the U.S. government-funded RFA. With its reports on illegal logging, government corruption, and human rights abuses, RFA earned a reputation as one of Cambodia’s very few critical news sources.
The print media, meanwhile, came under direct government threat. Soren Seelow, news editor of the French- and Khmer-language daily Cambodge Soir, was fired on June 10 for his decision to publish an article that extensively cited the Global Witness report. News reports at the time claimed that his dismissal was motivated by official pressure. The publication temporarily closed after its journalists went on strike to protest the editor’s firing.
A number of Khmer-language newspapers that had serialized RFA’s logging reports were directed by the government to stop or face the suspension of their publishing licenses. In particular, officials threatened to close the daily Sralanh Khmer if it continued to publish the RFA reports, according to news accounts.
The clampdown marked a worrying departure from what many Cambodian
journalists and some press freedom activists had earlier characterized as an improving press freedom environment. Hun Sen came under intense international pressure after his government jailed three journalists between October 2005 and January 2006 over their reports on a controversial border treaty that the premier had struck with neighboring Vietnam.
In early 2006, his government reversed course and released the three men. Several Phnom Penh-based journalists told CPJ that they viewed that event as a watershed for Cambodian press freedom. In June 2006, Hun Sen’s government repealed jail terms as penalties for criminal defamation, although journalists may still be imprisoned on broadly written laws governing incitement and disinformation. On August 10, 2007, Hun Sen renewed his 2006 pledge to completely decriminalize defamation through amendment of the country’s penal code. The measure was pending in late year, but many Cambodian journalists were optimistic it would be adopted.
At the same time, the administration implemented a new government spokesman system in which all requests for official information were directed to the Information Ministry rather than the relevant ministry or agency. Information Ministry officials presented the new policy as a way to improve government-media relations, according to local journalists. Several journalists who spoke to CPJ in Phnom Penh said the new system had narrowed the flow of information and complained about the spotty availability of Information Ministry officials with clearance to speak to the press.
There were also doubts about the quality of the information dispensed by the ministry. ?In an exclusive interview with the English-language bimonthly Phnom Penh Post, Information Minister Khieu Kanarith articulated his strategy for communicating to Western journalists. “You have to understand: Cambodians know the song you want to hear, and we can sing it for you. ... When you ask a question, we know what kind of answer you want to hear.”
On May 3, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights issued a statement calling for the elimination of the Information Ministry, which it referred to as “an obstacle to freedom of the press” and a relic of the country’s former “authoritarian regime.” Other press freedom advocates continued to push for new legislation barring politicians from owning media outlets.
Of the country’s 20 regularly published Khmer-language newspapers, all but two were heavily slanted in favor of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Several publications were owned and editorially steered by senior CPP politicians, while others were managed by their close business associates, including the country’s largest circulation daily newspaper, Rasmei Kampuchea. One critical newspaper, Khmer Amatak, saw its license suspended for one month beginning on October 8, when its director refused an Information Ministry order to print a correction to an article critical of Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bun Chhay. The paper stood by the accuracy of its story and said it was willing to fight its case in court before the suspension was handed down.
A similar situation prevailed in television news. All 11 stations were either owned or run by politicians or their business proxies, and all reported fawningly on Hun Sen and his CPP-led government. One television news analysis program, “Thursday Talk,” aired by privately held Cambodian Television Network and hosted by popular broadcaster Soy Sopheap, did begin to earn a reputation for tackling low-level corruption.
Soy Sopheap told CPJ that “over the past 15 years we have seen big improvements” in the press freedom situation for television reporters, but that the situation was “still less free compared with most Western countries.” He said that criticism of Hun Sen, CPP members, and senior military officials was still off-limits. The reporter spoke from personal experience: In November 2006, he received an anonymous death threat connected to his program’s reports on military corruption. “Watch out for yourself when you criticize the stars. It means death,” said the Khmer-language letter, invoking the term “stars” to mean senior generals. The threat came shortly after Soy Sopheap aired a report on corruption allegations against senior military figures.
In remote provinces, meanwhile, journalists continued to work in a hostile and often lawless environment. On May 2, Gen. Pol Sinuon, a senior military official based in the western Battambang province, threatened to shoot Kampuchea Thmey newspaper reporter Chim Chenda after Chim addressed him by his name rather than a term of respect reserved for senior members of the military. The general later retracted his statement, claiming he made the threat in jest, according to the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, a local press freedom advocacy group.
Other attacks on provincial reporters arose from anonymous sources. On August 9, Chbas Kar reporter Phon Phat received a threat from an anonymous caller who said he would deliver a “gift” to the reporter because of his accounts of illegal logging in western Porsat province. The following night, at around 4 a.m., unknown assailants set Phat’s house on fire. He and his family escaped without injury, and the blaze was quickly extinguished.
Boeng Khnar Commune Police Chief Sann Ly was quoted in the local press saying that the attack was likely in “revenge” for Phat’s reporting on illegal logging. District Police Chief Youk Yoen told reporters that his investigation team was approaching the case as “an attack on the free press.” One week later, on August 17, Phat’s house was attacked again by unknown arsonists.