Cambodia Daily was launched in 1993 by American journalist Bernard Krisher as the modern state of Cambodia emerged following the tumultuous period of civil war, genocide and occupation. The new Cambodia had a constitution based on democracy and respect for human rights and boasted a free press and a vibrant civil society.
But a quarter of a century after the 1991 Paris peace accords outlined a blueprint for a modern, stable and peaceful state in Cambodia, freedom of expression there is in grave danger. Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index now ranks Cambodia 132nd out of 180 states – no easy place to be a journalist.
The Cambodia Daily was one of three English language newspapers in daily circulation in the country, along with the Phnom Penh Post and the newer Khmer Times. But on August 4 this year, the paper was served with a tax reassessment indicating tax arrears of 25,756,015,695 riels (roughly US$6.3m). The sum was declared due within 30 days and allegedly comprises tax owed and interest due on it.
The Cambodia Daily accepts that “there may be a legitimate dispute between the tax department and the owners of the Daily over when tax became collectable and in what amount”. But there have been no government explanations over the calculations or discussions on options for resolving the matter. The paper’s licence has not been renewed – and it has now ceased operations.
More worryingly, over the last two weeks, several other media outlets have also closed down. These closures are related to licensing regulations and various registration requirements. Radio is a vital source of news and information for many in the country. Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, for example, have been particularly affected by restricted access to broadcasting time.
Curbing freedom of expression
The Association of Southeast Asian National Parliamentarians for Human Rights criticised what it called “a clear intent by the ruling party to curb freedom of expression ahead of the national elections” in July 2018.
And it’s not just the media that is under fire. All non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Cambodia are required to file accounts with the minister of interior this month. This is a requirement under the controversial new Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO).
LANGO requires all NGOs to register and comply with national laws – many NGOs have recently been targeted for non-payment of taxes or tax arrears. Commentators have raised the alarm at this law, which they say can be used to constrain modern Cambodia’s hitherto vibrant civil society. On August 23, for exmaple, the National Democratic Institute was shut due to alleged LANGO infringements.
These events are set against a backdrop of elections. Cambodia’s local elections on June 4 passed relatively peacefully on the day, despite many observers voicing concerns over the atmosphere of threats and intimidation in the lead-up to them.
National Assembly elections, however, are scheduled for July 29, 2018 – and these will decide the composition of parliament and the next government. The last such elections (in 2013) were followed by a period of political unrest.
The current government is headed by Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen who has held that position since 1985, making him one of the world’s longest ruling leaders. His period in power has seen rapid economic growth and development as the country was rebuilt – indeed Cambodia now has achieved lower middle income status. But the government has exercised tight control and attracted substantial criticism from states, commentators and NGOs alike.
Before the local elections, a number of legal reforms were made affecting the composition and actions of political parties, restricting free discussions on political matters and requiring NGOs and trade unions to be politically neutral.
Such laws are interpreted very strictly. Journalists, foreign governments, individuals and NGOs questioning the government’s actions are frequently deemed anti-government and pro-opposition. The leader of the main opposition party, Kem Sokha, was was this week arrested for treason on September 3. The offence of conspiracy with a foreign power allegedly relates to comments made in 2013 in Melbourne, Australia, and the foreign power is alleged to be the US.
New laws are increasingly being used in Cambodia to restrict freedom of expression and political dissent. Charges of insurrection, bribery, defamation, forgery and incitement have all been used recently. Long periods of pre-trial detention are common and detainees may or may not ever be brought to trial. For example, in June, four employees of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), were released after 427 days in pre-trial detention. Their detention was deemed arbitrary by UN experts but charges levied could still be reactivated against these human rights defenders.
Last year, a student was jailed for incitement following comments made on Facebook calling for a revolution. And following the murder of prominent political activist Kem Ley in 2016, several people were charged with offences such as defamation, including Senator Thak Lany. At present, some 20 politicians and activists with links to the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), are being detained and over 30 more have been charged with a range of offences and await trial.
Campaign of disinformation
The Cambodian government’s take on the general situation was perhaps best expressed in a paper published in April by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. The government elaborated on its view that it has been the subject of a campaign of disinformation over the years, highlighting the UN and the US as particular offenders.
But there is no doubt that freedom of expression in Cambodia is under threat. Criticising government policy is not a reason to prosecute, rather it is part of the normal democratic process in the run up to national elections. Balanced and informed monitoring of human rights in a country is a normal part of international society, including countries commenting on the situation in other states – for example, through the UN Human Rights Council. The UN Human Rights Council begins its 36th session this month and the situation in Cambodia will be discussed.
Expressing political opinions should not be a crime, not least during a period elections in a democratic society. Closing newspapers and radio stations and restricting the work of NGOs should be a last resort even when such outlets allegedly breach national law. Sadly, this is no longer the case in modern Cambodia.