Bangkok, September 24, 2013–At least seven journalists were assaulted by a mob of masked men on Sunday while covering a land rights protest in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, according to journalists and local news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the attack and calls for an independent investigation that leads to the prosecution of the perpetrators as well as complicit police officials.
Staff reporters and freelance contributors for Agence France-Presse, The Cambodia Daily, The Phnom Penh Post, and Voice of America were attacked by assailants wearing surgical masks and armed with slingshots, batons, and electric prods at around 10 p.m. near the capital’s iconic Wat Phnom temple.
The mob arrived minutes after protestors spelled out the word “peace” in lit candles at the Buddhist shrine, according to the reports. Lights in the public area popular with tourists were cut ahead of the mob’s arrival, allowing the assailants to launch their attack under the cover of darkness, according to a statement released by the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC).
A number of reporters were shocked with electric prods and hit by marbles shot from slingshots in an apparent attempt to prevent them from reporting on police suppression of the protest, journalists told CPJ. The OPCC and local reports said a unit of military police stood by while the assailants attacked both journalists and protestors. None of the injuries reported by journalists were severe.
“This wanton attack on journalists, in full view of police officials, underscores once again the Cambodian government’s disdain for the rights of the press,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We call on Prime Minister Hun Sen to break the cycle of violence against journalists and ensure that those involved in the attack are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Rick Valenzuela, an American photojournalist and president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, told CPJ that he was shocked with an electric baton and hit in the back of the neck with a slingshot projectile. Four police officials in uniform later tried to seize his camera, which Valenzuela says he retained, but it was damaged in the tussle.
Koam Chanrasmey, a Cambodian videographer with The Phnom Penh Post, had his camera and other photographic equipment smashed and later confiscated by police officials, according to journalists at the scene. He was nonetheless able to document the assault, including a video clip posted on his newspaper’s website of an electric shock attack on Valenzuela and Denise Hruby of The Cambodia Daily.
The attack comes amid a tense political standoff between Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia’s People’s Party and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). In recent weeks, the CNRP has staged street protests and boycotted parliament to protest an election result its supporters believe was rigged to favor the CPP. The protestors targeted in the attack on Sunday are known to be aligned with the CNRP.
Sunday’s protest centered on government evictions of residents of the Boeung Kak Lake area of northern Phnom Penh to make way for the development of condominiums and commercial complexes.