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CAPSULE REPORT: Defamation decriminalised, but attacks on journalists increase in 2007, says CAPJ free expression report

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is a SEAPA press release:

CAPJ presents 2007 free expression report to information minister, journalists

On 30 January 2008, the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) held a meeting with Information Minister Khieu Kanharith and journalists to present its report on the state of press freedom in the country in 2007.

While welcoming the government's decision to decriminalise defamation on 13 August 2007, CAPJ noted a sharp increase in attacks on journalists, compared with 2006 figures. There were 15 incidents of journalists being threatened, nine lawsuits filed against them, three warnings issued to them and eight arrests of journalists.

A full report of the situation can be found in SEAPA's annual review, prepared with input from CAPJ and released on 27 December 2007:

Free but fearful in Cambodia

Cambodia appears to have in place all the laws ensuring media freedom, but the reality is a different matter altogether. The constitutional provision for press freedom is ironically often invoked to restrict this very right, for it says, rather broadly, that the exercise of this right must not infringe upon the rights of others, "affect good traditions of society" and violate public law and order and national security. The interpretation of these restrictions should conform to the standards in the ratified International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but that has not been the case. Multiple revisions have incorporated into the 1995 Press Law unwarranted restrictions and self-contradictory stipulations, such as binding journalists to criminal law though acknowledging that "no persons shall be arrested or subject to criminal charges as a result of the expression of opinion". Another restrictive constitutional provision that has been repeatedly invoked is Article 7, which states: "The King shall be inviolable". It was used to justify the confiscation of "Free Press Magazine" over an article that questioned former King Norodom Sihanouk's immunity from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Despite the seemingly positive act to decriminalise defamation on 13 August - rendering moot the threat against Thach Ket, chief editor of "Sralanh Khmer", and former king Norodom Sihanouk's lawsuit against the same newspaper for alleging Queen Monineath was Vietnamese - there is still another favourite weapon of the authorities: the law on disinformation, which punishes transgressors with imprisonment from six months to three years or a fine of one million to ten million riels (approx. US$253 to US$2,530), or both. And even in civil defamation cases, journalists still face the threat of jail if they fail to pay the same steep fines.

Climate of fear

Much of the government's workings remain shrouded in secrecy, with the access to information law ignored or not enforced by government officials. Journalists operate in a climate of fear made real by the past occurrences of colleagues being attacked and killed. While none was killed for their work this year, a sense of danger persists under the authoritarian leadership of Hun Sen, the prime minister since 1985. Chim Chenda of "Kampuchea Thmei" was threatened with a gun by General Pol Sinuon for addressing the officer by his name, while Chandy of "Reaksmei Kampuchea" received an anonymous death-threat letter after he wrote a story implicating the Commune Chief of Tek Kraham in land grabbing. Phon Phat of "Chbas Ka" found his house razed twice over his reports on illegal logging. Those threatened for their work would lie low or flee the country until the situation quietens down. A Radio Free Asia reporter bearing the penname "Keo Nimol" had to leave the country briefly after the prime minister lashed out at him, calling him insolent and rude. His colleague, Lem Pich Pisey, was forced to flee after receiving an anonymous death threat.

The Information Ministry regularly issues and enforces bans on newspapers for reporting on sensitive issues like corruption, land grabbing and criticisms of public officials. The biggest casualty was the major French newspaper, "Cambodge Soir", which was closed down after 12 years in operation for defying the ban on an environmental report which alleged official corruption. Soon after, the "Sralanh Khmer" newspaper was warned to stop further reports about the same issue. The "Khmer Amatak" newspaper was suspended a month for incurring the wrath of Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bun Chhay.

Government propaganda dominates the national broadcaster, allowing no room for opposition views. Even in the press and radio - where there is plurality as ownership is open to political parties, businesses and non-governmental organisations - the authorities can limit ownership on a whim, as seen in its rejection of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights' application to run a community radio station.

The Internet is a new medium that is as yet unrestricted, but it is accessible only to the minority middle class in the big cities - an estimated 44,000 users out of a total population of close to 14 million. A burgeoning community of bloggers continues to show and test the viability of the medium and, consequently, the authorities' patience.

Ethics problem

A lack of ethics in an underpaid profession has also exposed journalists to physical harm, especially those in the poverty-ridden countryside where there is severe lack of basic infrastructure. Most provincial journalists earn a monthly salary of about US$40 and would demand payment in return for their articles or other bribes. On 13 January, editors of the "Sangket Ka", "Samaki" and "Sangkum Cheat" newspapers were arrested and charged for blackmailing actress Vang Srey No. On 15 February, a "Polrath Khmer" reporter was attacked by a mob for alleged extortion. On 27 March, the publisher of "Vichea Khmer" newspaper was arrested for attempted murder. Most such cases are resolved behind closed doors or through "under-the-table" negotiations, entrenching the culture of bad journalism rather than breaking the cycle.

To address concerns about ethics and protect freedom of the press in general, a Press Council composed of 13 journalist associations was created on 20 July, with CAPJ President Um Sarin elected to head the organisation.

This report was prepared with input from Sam Rithy Duong Hak, Vice-President of CAPJ, a SEAPA partner based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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