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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Cambodia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Cambodia, February 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5669628.html [accessed 25 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Nominally democratic, Cambodia continues to struggle with its official commitment to press freedom while the government frequently uses its power to influence, control, and bully the press.

The Cambodian print media are famously free and infamously full of gossip. Some 200 newspapers are licensed for publication, but virtually all Khmer-language publications are subsidized, directly or indirectly, by political interests, and the quality of the press remains wildly erratic. A high degree of illiteracy nationwide and poor distribution outside the capital, Phnom Penh, further mutes the impact of these publications.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's government firmly controls the electronic media. Strict licensing and opaque business relationships conspire to keep the six private television stations close to the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP); the seventh station is owned directly by the government. On the radio dial things are only marginally more open, with all but three stations controlled by the government. The exceptions are the largely noncontroversial FM102, operated by the Women's Media Centre, a nongovernmental organization, and Beehive FM105, the country's only independent news station. The opposition National United Front for a Neutral, Peaceful, Cooperative, and Independent Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), was finally granted a license for its own station, Ta Prum, in late 2002. The other major opposition party, the Sam Rainsy Party, has been waiting years for the government to approve its application for a broadcast outlet.

In recent years, with Cambodia emerging from decades of repression and civil war, once common physical attacks on journalists have decreased considerably. But in October, Chou Chetharith, the deputy editor of Ta Prum radio station, was assassinated in the capital, Phnom Penh, by a gunman riding on the back of a motorcycle. The killing heightened political tension in the city and came when the government and the opposition were locked in bitter negotiations to form a coalition government. The day before the shooting, Hun Sen had criticized Ta Prum's reporting, saying the station was insulting his leadership.

Cambodians with an interest in unbiased reporting rely on foreign sources. Three expatriate-owned local newspapers, two in English and one in French, are far and away the most reliable local sources of news. Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the BBC, and Radio France Internationale all beam Khmer-language news into the country on shortwave. VOA and RFA purchase time on Beehive radio to rebroadcast news on the FM dial, a source of continuing conflict between Beehive and the government, which has periodically banned the rebroadcast of foreign-sourced news. In 2002, Beehive was ordered to stop rebroadcasting the reports, but the ban was lifted in 2003.

During campaigning in July for the general elections, most observers reported that the CPP maintained an overwhelming advantage in access to the electronic news media. In the aftermath of the elections, which resulted in a sweeping victory for the CPP, opposition parties were again given scant coverage during a lengthy period of negotiations to form a coalition government.

The tendency of the media to report rumors and foment conflict had disastrous consequences for the country in January. The local media wrongly quoted a popular Thai actress as saying that the Angkor Wat temple complex, the national symbol of Cambodia, should properly belong to neighboring Thailand. The false accusation fueled historic tensions between the two countries when local politicians repeated the rumor. On January 29, despite the actress's denials, mobs in Phnom Penh burned the Thai Embassy and destroyed numerous Thai-owned businesses, forcing the evacuation of Thai citizens. Diplomatic relations were suspended briefly between the two governments. Eventually, Cambodian officials apologized to Thailand and agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars in damages.

Two journalists were arrested and blamed for the rioting. In Chan Sivutha, editor of Rasmei Angkor (Light of Angkor) newspaper, admitted to publishing the rumor two weeks before the riots without checking its veracity. Court papers cited the second journalist, Mam Sonando, owner and manager of Beehive radio station, for allowing a caller to his station to repeat a false rumor on air that anti-Cambodian rioting was under way in Bangkok. The two were charged with disseminating false information. Both news outlets were threatened with closure, and the journalists, if convicted, could be imprisoned for 10 years. Beehive was off the air for several days under government orders before reopening.

CPJ expressed concern that the issue was being used to single out the journalists for harassment. Pro-government media also reported on and amplified the rumors immediately before the rioting, with government officials, including Hun Sen, denouncing the actress on the air without checking the accuracy of the rumors first. No legal action was taken against other media or officials.

The government action against Beehive was particularly disturbing because Mam Sonando has long been a vocal critic of Hun Sen, and opposition parties and political activists have frequent access to the station. Diplomats and international aid organizations pressured the government to allow Beehive to remain on the air. Because of the slowness of the Cambodian court system and widespread international condemnation of the prosecution, at year's end, it seemed unlikely that the charges against either Mam Sonando or In Chan Sivutha would lead to convictions.


2003 Documented Cases – Cambodia

JANUARY 30, 2003

Mam Sonando, Sombok Khmum
IMPRISONED

Sonando, owner and manager of Sombok Khmum (Beehive) radio station, was arrested and formally charged with inciting crimes and discrimination and disseminating false information in connection with anti-Thai riots in the capital, Phnom Penh.

On the morning of January 29, about 400 people gathered at the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh to protest comments attributed to popular Thai actress Suwanan Konying that Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat Temple should belong to Thailand. These comments were first published by the Light of Angkor newspaper and then circulated widely by the local media. Suwanan denies ever making the statement, and In Chan Sivutha, editor of the Light of Angkor, now concedes that the paper failed to verify the accuracy of its report.

By the evening of January 29, the protests had become violent, with demonstrators looting Thai-owned businesses and setting fire to the Thai Embassy. At least one person was killed and several people were injured, according to international news reports. Amid the protests, a live Sombok Khmum radio talk show broadcast a caller's statement that several Cambodian Embassy officials were killed in Thailand in retaliation for the protests – allegations that proved to be false. Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that the broadcast, which he said aired at about 2:30 p.m., before the violence erupted, directly incited the riots. However, station employees say the call was broadcast at night, after the fury had died down. CPJ sources who witnessed the riots do not believe that the radio broadcast directly caused the violence.

The next day, at about 7 p.m., two men went to Sonando's home and asked the journalist to accompany them to a meeting with a government official, according to the Phnom Penh­based Cambodian Center for Human Rights. However, the men instead drove the journalist to the local police station, where he was arrested. He was formally charged on January 31.

Sombok Khmum is Cambodia's only independent radio station. Sonando is a former opposition politician who headed the Sombok Khmum Party, which collapsed after losing legislative elections in 1998.

On February 1, In Chan Sivutha was also arrested and formally charged for publishing the comments that were attributed to Suwanan. On February 11, both journalists were released on bail.

On February 6, CPJ sent a letter of inquiry to the prime minister arguing that the journalists were singled out unfairly. There is no comparable effort under way to prosecute government officials who made inflammatory statements during the protests and who did little to discourage the rioting. The Cambodian government's selective prosecution appears to be an attempt to use the journalists as scapegoats for an incident that became a major diplomatic fiasco, badly damaging relations between Cambodia and Thailand.

FEBRUARY 1, 2003

In Chan Sivutha, Light of Angkor
IMPRISONED

Sivutha, editor of the Light of Angkor newspaper, was arrested and formally charged with inciting crimes and discrimination and disseminating false information in connection with the anti-Thai riots that engulfed the capital, Phnom Penh.

On the morning of January 29, about 400 people gathered at the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh to protest comments attributed to popular Thai actress Suwanan Konying that Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat Temple should belong to Thailand. These comments were first published by the Light of Angkor and then circulated widely by the local media. Suwanan denies ever making the statement, and Sivutha now concedes that the paper failed to verify the accuracy of its report. By the evening of January 29, the protests had become violent, with demonstrators looting Thai-owned businesses and setting fire to the Thai Embassy. At least one person was killed and several people were injured, according to international news reports.

On February 1, Sivutha was arrested and formally charged for publishing the comments that were attributed to Suwanan. Earlier, on January 30, Mam Sonando, owner and manager of Sombok Khmum (Beehive) radio station, had been arrested on the same charges. On February 11, both journalists were released on bail.

On February 6, CPJ sent a letter of inquiry to the prime minister arguing that the journalists were singled out unfairly. There is no comparable effort under way to prosecute government officials who made inflammatory statements during the protests and who did little to discourage the rioting. The Cambodian government's selective prosecution appears to be an attempt to use the journalists as scapegoats for an incident that became a major diplomatic fiasco, badly damaging relations between Cambodia and Thailand.

OCTOBER 18, 2003
Posted: October 20, 2003

Chou Chetharith, Ta Prum
KILLED – UNCONFIRMED

Chetharith, a deputy editor of the royalist FUNCINPEC party's Ta Prum radio station, was killed by a gunman riding on the back of a motorcycle while the journalist was on his way to work in the capital, Phnom Penh.

According to witnesses interviewed by Agence France-Presse, Chetharith, 37, was shot in the head at point-blank range in broad daylight. Local sources tell CPJ that Ta Prum is known for its critical reporting of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and that the station's director, Noranarith Anandayath, is an adviser to FUNCINPEC party chief Prince Norodom Ranaridhh.

On Friday, the day before the shooting, the prime minister criticized Ta Prum in the English-language Cambodia Times, accusing the station of insulting his leadership.

Chetharith's murder came ahead of scheduled three-way talks between the FUNCINPEC party, the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), and the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). The talks were canceled after the journalist's killing. They had been aimed at ending a three-month political stalemate following the July 27 elections, when Hun Sen and his CPP failed to garner a two-third majority of the vote. By law, the CPP was required to form a coalition with opposition parties but refused to do so.

No arrests have been made in the case, and Chetarith was buried on October 20 outside Phnom Penh. Sau Phan, a deputy general of the National Police and a member of FUNCINPEC, told Agence France-Presse that an investigative committee has been formed with FUNCINPEC and CPP party members to pursue the case.

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