The government has slammed a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report that ranks Cambodia 143 out of 180 countries for press freedom, saying that media outlets are prospering like a field of mushrooms and that the government allows journalists wide freedoms to publish according to “the Cambodian way.”
Cambodia’s ranking at 143 marks a fall of one place from its position of 142 in last year’s report by RSF, which was released after a spate of media repression that hamstrung a once thriving — if small — independent media landscape that had long co-existed with the country’s otherwise state-controlled media outlets.
Last year’s RSF rankings followed the forced closure of The Cambodia Daily, the sale of The Phnom Penh Post to a government-linked group, the closure of more than a dozen independent radio stations, the shuttering of Radio Free Asia’s local offices and the imprisonment of two of the station’s journalists for “espionage.”
By contrast, the past year had been expressly positive for Cambodia’s media and outlets should be grateful they are not forced to submit stories for pre-approval before publishing, said Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Sok Eysan.
“The media in Cambodia has grown and grown like mushrooms,” Eysan said, adding that journalists should be more appreciative. “In broadcasting, they have rights to broadcast freely without censorship in-advance like some countries.”
The fall from 142 to 143 marks the second consecutive year that Cambodia has fallen on RSF’s rankings, having come in at a comparatively better 132 in 2017.
The repeated fall in the RSF rankings comes amid a six-month European Union review of Cambodia’s continued eligibility for its lucrative “Everything But Arms” tariff-free export scheme, with media freedom named among its concerns.
Information Ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng told VOD that groups like RSF were biased against Cambodia’s government and should accentuate the positives.
“It’s not unusual,” Kimseng said of the poor ranking. “It’s just that in Cambodia we try to ensure together that press freedom and freedom of expression, which is constitutionally guaranteed, is [implemented] according to the Cambodian way.”
“For them, we already knew that they always see the negatives,” the spokesman added. “For us, we are using a press freedom that is fairly acceptable.”
RSF’s report singled out, in particular, what it said had appeared to be a concerted effort to silence Cambodia’s independent media in the lead-up to the controversial July 2018 national election, in which the CPP won 125 out 125 National Assembly seats following the November 2017 forced dissolution of the opposition party.
However, Eysan, the CPP spokesperson, said this was a mischaracterization.
He said the shuttering of Cambodia’s independent radio stations and foreign-funded news services like Radio Free Asia, as well as the arrests of journalists and the closures and sale of the foreign-language media (such as the Daily and Post, both of which faced sudden tax bills) during the pre-election period was not political.
He said Radio Free Asia voluntarily closed its offices, Voice of America was never forced to leave and that the radio stations that carried their news programs around the country were only forced to close because they failed to properly file paperwork to extend their licenses with the Information Ministry.
Radio Free Asia’s two journalists jailed in November 2017 for “espionage” were released from prison in August 2018 — less than a month after the national election. However, this was followed closely by the arrest of “fixer” and translator Rath Rott Mony in December 2018 for a report by RT on child sex trafficking.
Rott Mony has been denied bail and is yet to face trial with the government claiming the report for which he translated harmed Cambodia’s reputation.
Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) executive director Tess Bacalla said the poor RSF ranking for Cambodia reflected the tenuous situation faced by independent journalists in the country who fail to toe the CPP political line.
“There appears to be no letup on state repression of the media,” Bacalla said.
The RSF report said the assaults on media led to a situation where most Cambodians and foreign observers have access primarily only to news from government-affiliated outlets — such as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s preferred Fresh News or the many newspapers and TV stations affiliated with his ruling CPP.
Pen Bona, head of the Club of Cambodian Journalists and the editor-in-chief of TV station PNN, which is owned by business tycoon and CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, said that he believed promoting media freedom in Cambodia was the responsibility of both the government and also the journalists who could be repressed.
“Firstly, we encourage the relevant institutions to respect and give freedom to the press,” Bona told VOD. “Secondly, we encourage all of our reporters to respect the professional code of conduct to properly fulfil legal requirements.”
“This is the only way we can promote press freedom in our country.”
According to the RSF report, press freedom in Cambodia remains better than in four other Southeast Asian nations: Singapore (151), Brunei (152), Laos (171) and Vietnam (176). Singapore has been ruled by one party since its independence in 1965 and has a notoriously litigious government, while Brunei remains an absolute monarchy and Vietnam and Laos are rule by single-party communist states.
Across wider Asia, China was ranked at 177 out of the 180 countries, North Korea at 179 and Turkmenistan was named as the world’s worst country for the press.
RSF’s best rankings were reserved for the Nordic countries — with the top position given to Norway, followed closely by Finland at No. 2 and Sweden at No. 3. The Netherlands and Denmark rounded out the top 5 best nations for press freedom.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)