Cambodia suppresses question on ’97 grenade attack

Bangkok, January 24, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by reports that Cambodian officials deleted digital recordings and confiscated recording equipment from a number of journalists who covered a January 21 government press conference in Phnom Penh.

Om Yentieng, head of the government’s anti-corruption unit and Human Rights Committee, ordered an aide to confiscate the property after a reporter asked a question about an unsolved grenade attack that targeted an opposition rally in 1997, according to a statement released by the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia. Sixteen activists were killed in the attack.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan later told news media that the government was within its rights to confiscate reporters’ recordings and equipment to protect the “privacy rights” and “dignity” of officials. The Press Club noted in response that the confiscation of tapes and recorders constitutes censorship in violation of Article 3 of the 1995 Press Law, which broadly guarantees press freedoms.

The censorship generated some coverage in the Cambodian press. The independent English-language daily, The Phnom Penh Post, reported the question and Om Yentieng’s reponse. The official called the question a “trap,” labeled the reporter a “Khmer child,” and asserted that recordings required permission, the Post reported.

“Despite its legal commitments to uphold press freedom, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government continues to use strong-arm tactics against the media,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We call on Cambodian authorities to stop harassing the media and immediately return the tapes and recording equipment illegally taken from reporters.”

The confiscation comes amid other attacks on dissent in Cambodia. On December 19, a Cambodian court sentenced U.N. World Food Program employee and Cambodian national Seng Kunnaka to six months in prison for circulating articles about a border dispute with Vietnam, according to news reports. He was charged under Article 495 of the new penal code enacted on December 10, which includes an overly broad definition of incitement that threatens freedom of expression.