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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Cambodia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Cambodia, February 1998, available at: [accessed 18 November 2017]
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.

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's violent coup d'etat on July 5 and 6 ousting his co-premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh raised fears of renewed political terror which could mortally wound Cambodia's emerging free press and civil institutions. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, virtually all of Cambodia's opposition newspapers – especially those identified with Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC party and opposition leader Samuel Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party (KNP) – ceased publishing, while some 40 senior reporters and editors fled into exile in neighboring Thailand. Much of the press eventually resumed publishing, but in late December Hun Sen's government issued a series of verbal threats against the press that heightened feelings of uncertainty among both local and foreign journalists.

Scores of people died in fighting during the July coup, which occurred while Ranariddh was out of the country. Canadian citizen Michael Senior, a 23-year-old photographer of Cambodian descent, was the lone journalist killed. Orphaned during the Khmer Rouge regime, Senior was adopted by a Canadian family and had returned to Phnom Penh in 1995 in hopes of becoming a journalist. He was shot, execution-style, by soldiers loyal to Hun Sen in front of his Khmer wife and infant child as he attempted to photograph troops looting a public market on the Monday after the coup.

After the coup, Hun Sen promised that newspapers would resume operations without sanction, and many Khmer-language newspapers were indeed publishing again by the end of the year. However, a number of journalists remain in exile and in fear: "Yes, my paper is publishing but I cannot go home," said Pin Samkhon, the head of the Khmer Journalists Association and editor of The Independent, who is in exile in Bangkok. "I have been told that I will be killed if I return."

Even before the coup, the situation for journalists was deteriorating as relations between the two co-premiers grew increasingly fractious. On March 30, reporter Chet Duong Daravuth of the newspaper Neak Prayuth was killed in a grenade attack on a rally staged by KNP leader Samuel Rainsy. Dozens of other journalists were injured and at least 26 people were killed in the incident. On May 4 gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at the Sihanoukville office of Cambodia's national television station, TVK, killing one technician and further raising tensions among reporters. Both incidents went unpunished but were widely assumed to be the result of partisan political infighting.

With Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party in control of the national government, on December 23, Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith, a former newspaper publisher, warned both local and foreign reporters about "unfair" coverage of continuing fighting in some remote areas between forces loyal to Ranariddh and those loyal to Hun Sen. The government, Kanharith said, would take legal action against news organizations whose coverage was perceived as biased against the government. As the year ended, Kanharith threatened to expel reporter Ed Fitzgerald of the television network Asia Business News after Kanharith complained that a year-end ABN report on Cambodia was unfair to the regime.

The coup cost Cambodia much international goodwill, stalled its planned entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, derailed economic growth, substantially reduced foreign aid and effectively isolated Cambodia at a time of worsening economic crisis for the region. If Hun Sen cannot right his ship with a fair election whose results are accepted by the Cambodian people, then the political deterioration seems likely to continue with predictably dismal results for press freedom.

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