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April 9, 2020 - Updated on May 6, 2020

Cambodia: Hun Sen uses Covid-19 crisis to tighten his grip

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) speaks to the media during a press conference at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on April 7, 2020 (photo: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP).
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges Cambodia’s legislators to amend a proposed state of emergency law they are due to vote on in the next few days and, in particular, to eliminate gross violations of the freedom to inform and be informed that could have serious consequences during the coronavirus crisis.

According to national assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long, the proposed “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency” will be submitted for a vote by tomorrow “at the latest.” Approved by the cabinet on 31 March, it is designed to enable the government to “control the situation” if the coronavirus spreads in Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen says.

 

RSF has obtained a copy of the proposed law, which would institutionalize censorship in all the media.

 

Article 5 (11) provides for “Prohibiting or restricting the distribution or broadcast of information that could generate public alarm or fear or generate unrest, or that could bring about damage to national security, or that could bring into being confusion regarding the state of emergency.”

 

More prosaically, the preceding article,  5 (10), allows the government “to surveil and keep track of all means [of communication] for the receipt of information via telecommunication contact systems in every form.”

 

“We urge Cambodia’s legislators to act responsibly by deleting articles 5 (10) and (11) from the state of emergency law because they would institutionalize a system of surveillance and censorship never seen in 30 years of Khmer democracy,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

 

“Prime Minister Hun Sen is brazenly exploiting the coronavirus crisis in order to secure his dictatorial rule even more, without thought for the health of his fellow citizens. It is up to legislators to stop this intolerable abuse of power.”

 

Opposition

 

Monoroom.info, a Khmer-language news website based in France, became inaccessible in Cambodia on 31 March after it published several articles about the coronavirus situation there, and has remained inaccessible ever since.

 

Ever since sham elections in July 2018, all of the national assembly seats have been controlled by the Cambodian People's Party, which supports the political clan led by Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister since 1985.

 

But several observers say some legislators are preparing to oppose the Cambodian strongman’s professed desire to ensure that his children succeed him. In this light, articles 5 (10) et 5 (11) could be used by Hun Sen to suppress any debate about the succession in the press and any rebellious tendencies within the party.

 

Cambodia is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.