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Cambodia: Mixed Views on Freedom of Expression

Surya Subedi, the human rights envoy of the United Nations to Cambodia noted the progress of human rights issues in the country during his second visit in January 2010. Asked by reporters following his talk with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Subedi highlighted the general picture of human rights situation in Cambodia:

“We discussed a wide range of human rights issues. We have been making progress on freedom of expression and the NGO law, land evictions and the cooperation between civil society and the government.”

Unlike his predecessors who were harshly criticized by the Cambodian government, Subedi is apparently more acceptable to government officials including Om Yentieng, a top adviser to Hun Sen and the chief of government's human rights committee, who urged UN officials not to continue the “old way” of criticizing the Cambodian government on human rights issue. Om Yentieng reportedly claimed that the government is working hard to solve and improve the human rights situation in Cambodia. He offered an interesting notion on human rights situation in Cambodia by saying:

ប្រទេស​កម្ពុជា​មិន​មែន​ជា​ឋាននរក​ ហើយ​កម្ពុជា​ក៏​មិន​ទាន់​ក្លាយ​ជា​ឋាន​សួគ៌​មួយ​នៃ​សិទ្ធិ​មនុស្ស​នោះ​ដែរ។

“We are not a hell [like UN reports have mentioned] and we have not yet become a heaven of human rights.”

However, a human rights organization, ADHOC, recently released its 2009 report on “Human Rights Situation” by marking the year 2009 as the year when restriction on the freedom of expression increased. The usual targets were politicians and activists who are critical to the government. The report noted that the sorry state of freedom of expression in 2009 is comparable to 2005 when a number of human rights activists were arrested.

“At least twenty-two complaints were filed by government officials against dissident politicians and civil organization representatives, with an additional twenty-five complaints against journalists. This year, the situation can be compared to 2005; although there has been a slight improvement in relation to sentencing in defamation cases. No one who has been accused of defamation charges has been jailed and the accused of other charges have been given more chances to escape overseas comparing to 2005. Notably, it has become a tendency to restrict this freedom right after the general elections and the formation of a new government. With new elections looming, the situation has been loosen. We expect, this time, similar tendency would be repeated.”

The report raised the alarm on the increasing number of threats against human rights defenders over the past three years. Compared to 2008 when 164 prosecutions were conducted, the figure jumped dramatically in 2009 when 235 human rights defenders were charged. Of this 2009 figure, 147 were arrested with 89 granted bails and 58 remained in custody while the remaining 88 have managed to escape questionable arrest warrants. ADHOC also raised additional concern given the fact that many threats against human rights defenders are channeled through the courts. This trend is similar to the charges against journalists who were sued for defamation, misinformation and related issues.

Coincidentally, on the same day of the news release of ADHOC's report, an activist from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights reportedly appealed for intervention against an alleged death threat issued by members of an army unit after he took a photograph of soldiers cutting down fruit trees on a disputed land in Chumkiri district of Kampot Province.

This concern is not only raised by human rights institutions and activists, but also discussed in the blogosphere. Morn Vutha, following the chat with a student journalist, was asked an ordinary but crucial question: Are you afraid of threat warning?

“It is because that I talked more about corruption, bribery and extortion. Therefore, she asked me if I am afraid of writing articles about these issues.”

Vutha , who proclaimed his dream to own a personal blog where he can voice his opinion and disseminate news to friends, posted his reply to the question by highlighting the importance of freedom of expression through blogging.

“What I wrote about is the true things happening in the current society. I cannot shut up my mouth. I just want to share the real issues to all of you and other readers over the world […] The truth is the truth. We cannot hide it forever. In general, those who criticize the government are always getting life threat from unidentified people, especially human rights workers and politicians[…] Blog created is a good tool for sharing my own thoughts and opinions with all of you.

This sentiment is also shared by Kounila, in her post on “Politics You View in this World,”. She declared that Cambodian society might continually stay under suppression. It is just like domino effect where the old generation living in the dark period of genocide were traumatized to stay in silence and this had great impact on the younger generation who were told to follow only instructions without questioning.

“They [the old generation] are afraid to tell their real feelings. They are scared to be asked to give judgments about anything. Later, their children are taught to follow authority without questions, and after all they learn to do the same. No politics is blurted out at school or at home since their parents can blame or shoo them about any topic related to politics they talk about anywhere,” wrote Kounila.

Without letting this effect continue, Kounila started arguing with a friend and teacher about politics. Acknowledging that people perceive politics as dangerous and no ordinary person wants to be involved with politics, Kounila wonders why politicians dare to kill each other. Regardless of the threat in the political stage, Kounila still perceives that people need to act out in order that politicians will not be controlled by only a so-called elite group. She emphasizes that politics is for the people's welfare, it is therefore necessary for people to get out of political trap.

“Don’t let politics control you. You control it! Power is intoxicating but it doesn’t last long, just a blink if you think hard,” urged Kounila.

While there are mixed views on the state of freedom of expression in Cambodia, there is a subsequent tendency of internet censorship. The government plans to have a state-run exchange point to control all local internet service providers in order that internet security including pornography, theft and cyber crime can be censured. This has sparked another fear about the declining state of freedom of expression and access to information in Cambodia.

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