Cambodia was viewed as the good boy of South-East Asia as regards press freedom. Violence against journalists and censorship became more and more infrequent. Nonetheless, almost all of the broadcast media were controlled by the associates of Prime Minister Hun Sen. These media gave limited space to the opposition in the municipal elections of February 2002.

In the weeks prior to the elections, international and Cambodia observers criticised the news media's coverage of the campaign as biased, especially as the campaign was accompanied by considerable political violence. They reported that the activities of the government and candidates of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) were getting 82 per cent of air time, while the share accorded to the opposition (royalist) FUNCINPEC party and Sam Rangsi Party (SRP) was very limited and the other, small parties were almost entirely ignored.

Cambodia had at least six TV channels, 15 radio stations and more than 200 privately-owned publications. Most of the news media were tied to political groups or government associates and editorial independence was rare. The press also had to take care not to violate certain taboos such as not criticising the king, while the constitution required the news media not to jeopardise "public and national security."

The judiciary and other authorities made no effort to pursue investigations into the murders of journalists that took place during the 1990s. The murders of Nuon Chan, editor of the weekly Samleng Yuvachun Khmer (Voice of the Khmer Youth), and Thun Bun Ly, editor of the newspaper Oddomkete Khmae, remained unpunished although the perpetrators have been clearly identified.

Three journalists imprisoned

Bun Chanto, a reporter with the opposition newspaper Samleng Yuvachun Khmer, Thou Tara, a journalist with the privately-owned weekly Pesakacchun, and Ly Chun Huong, a reporter with the government news agency AKP, remained in police detention throughout 2002. They were detained on 24 November 2000, a few hours after militiamen claiming to belong to the Cambodian Freedom Fighter group attacked government buildings in Phnom Penh. According to the police, who have provided little information about the arrests, the names of the journalists appeared on a list drawn up by the head of the militia, Richard Kiri Kim. In 2001, a Phnom Penh court charged the journalists and some 40 other suspects with "terrorist activities and membership of an armed group." Since then the authorities have produced no evidence to support this charge.

Five journalists detained

Sok Sothear, a journalist with Moneakseka Khmer (Khmer Conscience), was arrested at his home by police in the Phnom Penh suburb of Toul Kork on 8 July 2002 and was interrogated by officials of the interior ministry's information office about a copy of a letter he had obtained and published suggesting that senior officials massaged figures for the numbers of foreigners with Cambodian voter cards. He was released a few hours later.

The editors of two opposition newspapers, Sar Socheat of Midi (Noon) and Sok Kimsreang of L'Après-Midi (Afternoon), were briefly arrested in the Kompong Trolach district in Kompong Chhnang province (north of the capital) on 2 September. They were quoted by Cambodge Soir as saying the authorities tried to intimidate them because they were investigating corruption in the allocation of fish markets. They were set free when the deputy governor intervened but they had to appear before him. After encouraging them to drop their investigation, he slipped them an envelope full of money for "damages." The two editors said they feared for their safety after their reports came out.

Keo Sorphoan, editor of the pro-government newspaper Chakraval (Universal), and Chey Makara, one of his reporters, were arrested in a restaurant in the capital on 21 September after publishing two articles criticising senior national police officials. They were charged with libelling the chief of police. Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered their release two days later, but the charges of libel and "publishing false news" were maintained.

A journalist physically attacked

Lon Nouk, a contributor to the weekly Panhavoan khmer (Khmer Intellectual), was ambushed and beaten with a steel bar by several individuals in the northwestern town of Paoy Pet on 3 December, sustaining an elbow injury. That day, the newspaper had a run a report about a land dispute involving the local authorities. He filed a complaint with the provincial police.

Pressure and obstruction

During the campaign for the municipal elections of 3 February 2002, the national election committee decided to eliminate televised debates between candidates from the different parties in order to "avoid any provocation." No candidates were therefore interviewed. Furthermore, a series of 15 informational broadcasts about the elections, produced by NGOs, were also banned because they were deemed to be "too liberal." The national election committee also banned the Sam Rangsi Party (SRP) from using recordings of debates on corruption in the national assembly.

The information ministry shut down the newspaper Sangkrous Cheat for a month on 15 March after it ran a report claiming that the king had spent money on the opposition FUNCINPEC party. The newspaper's editor, Chet San, apologised to the king but the king did not intercede on his behalf.

A Phnom Penh court fined the editor of the opposition newspaper Samleng Yuvachun Khmer (Voice of the Khmer Youth) more than 18,000 euros on 4 April for publishing in 2001 a report by the NGO Global Witness on the implication of a businessman in illegal logging with the complicity of two army generals. The editor, who appealed, said he was astonished that he had been prosecuted under the criminal code instead of the press law.

The opposition daily Moneakseka Khmer (Khmer Conscience) was sentenced by a Phnom Penh court on 12 May to pay a 270 euros fine to the government, while its editor Dam Sith, the author of an offending article, was fined 0.60 euros. Pen Samithy, the president of the Cambodian Journalists' Club, accused the judge of playing politics instead of dispensing justice.

The information ministry forced the privately-owned radio station Sambok Kmom (Bee FM) on 24 October to stop relaying the Khmer-language news bulletins of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The station had begun doing this a month earlier, but the ministry said it broke the law requiring prior authorisation for the broadcasting in Cambodia of programmes produced abroad. Cambodian journalists' associations condemned the ministry's decision to suppress this new kind of air waves freedom and Princess Vacheara, an opposition parliamentarian, called on the minister to defend his decision before the national assembly. The government has for years refused to let Radio Free Asia and Voice of America relay their Khmer-language broadcasts on FM in Cambodia themselves.


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