RSF worried by Hun Sen regime’s repeated attacks on media freedom
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by a surge in threats to journalists and in media self-censorship in Cambodia, exacerbated by political commentator and anti-corruption activist Kem Ley’s murder a week ago, and urges the government to stop intimidating the media and flouting freedom of information.
The authorities announced a “vigorous” investigation after Kem Ley was gunned down in Phnom Penh on 10 July, but freedom of information seems more endangered than ever and journalists continue to be the targets of threats and violent reprisals in connection with their activities.
Kem Ley’s murder came just days after he spoke on Radio Free Asia about a report published by British human rights NGO Global Witness on 7 July describing how Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family have gained control of many of Cambodia’s most important companies.
On the day of his murder, the interior ministry issued a statement warning both Cambodians and the international community against “delivering unconfirmed information which could potentially mislead the public.”
The day the report was issued, one of the people named in it, Hun Mana, the prime minister’s eldest daughter, condemned the “destructive efforts” of Global Witness, the Phnom Pen Post and Cambodia Daily, and accused them of colluding to “disparage and defame the Hun family with false information” ahead of elections scheduled for 2017 and 2018.
Both newspapers, which are among Cambodia’s leading English-language media outlets, had run stories about the report. Hun Mana is herself one of Cambodia’s four biggest media owners. One of the prime minister’s sons also accused the Global Witness report and the media coverage of being “full of mistakes and false information” designed to defame the family.
The sensitivity of the Global Witness report, entitled “Hostile Takeover,” was also apparent from the anonymous threatening letter that was sent to the two newspapers and was posted on the pro-government website Fresh Newspro-government website Fresh News under the title “Behaviour plunging Cambodians into a bonfire of war because of foreigners.” It was accompanied by a Nazi propaganda cartoon to which the names of the NGO and the two newspapers had been added.
“The Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post are foreign newspapers that often try to find all venomous means and tricks to destroy the peace of Samdech Hun Sen,” the letter said. “(...) The two newspapers should reform themselves by working with a high code of ethics and be clearly responsible and beneficial to Cambodia as a whole. Otherwise, Cambodia will have no choice but to take legal action and send all of you out of Cambodia.”
When a journalist asked him about the letter, cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan seemed to give it at least partial approval. He said he would summon the media to ensure that the situation did not escalate and added, with a laugh: “I don't want the messenger to get killed, my friend.”
“The reactions of all these officials and members of the prime minister’s family are outrageous even if not entirely surprising,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“We should rightly have expected a measured response addressing the substance of the allegations but instead we have seen intemperate comments and even threats against the media, which have just been serving the public interest. We caution Hun Sen’s government against any judicial reprisals against media outlets. Gagging the press would just make things worse for him.”
Much of the data used in the Global Witness report was taken from the Cambodian commerce ministry’s own publicly available database. Significantly, this data has been removed from the ministry’s website since the report’s publication but it is still available on the Global Witness website.
Cambodia is ranked 128th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.