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Cambodia: repression of journalists and activists deepens ahead of 2022 elections

Abby SeiffWednesday 6 October 2021

Image: Phnom Penh, Cambodian Prime Minister's office. Known as “Cambodian Peace Palace”. Dale Warren C / Shutterstock.com

In Cambodia, rights groups and legal monitors report a trend of worsening repression ahead of upcoming elections. In August, a high-profile union leader was convicted of inciting social unrest for criticising the placement of posts along the country’s border with Vietnam, with the Cambodian government claiming he spread false information.

Rong Chhun was sentenced to two years in prison on ‘incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order.’ Chhun was arrested in July 2020 after meeting with farmers on the Cambodian-Vietnam border who complained their land had been encroached upon, and subsequently releasing a report criticising the demarcation – long a sensitive subject to the Cambodian government.

Meanwhile, three young environmentalists affiliated with the Mother Nature Cambodia group face up to ten years in prison, reportedly for filming sewage in the river near the country’s Royal Palace. They’re charged with plotting against the state, and two face additional allegations of ‘lèse majesté’ (‘insulting the King’) – a severe charge. Three other campaigners were also sentenced in May to 18-20 months in prison for planning a one-woman protest to object to the infilling of a lake.

Rights groups have also expressed alarm about attacks on the freedom of expression by the Cambodian government, especially in respect of journalists and social media users who comment on the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘The recent arrests and trials of activists and human rights defenders and the excessive charges handed down have no legitimate justification and serve no other purpose than serving the Royal Government of Cambodia’s political agenda and consolidating its power,’ says Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). ‘They sadly illustrate the recently intensified efforts of the Government to stifle dissenting voices and growing intolerance to criticism ahead of the upcoming [elections].’

Cambodia will hold commune elections in 2022, followed by national elections in 2023. The commune elections represent the first local elections since the highly popular opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the Supreme Court of Cambodia in 2017.

Imprisonment has sadly become a common price to pay by all those who dare to speak out for human rights in Cambodia

Chak Sopheap
Executive Director, Cambodian Center for Human Rights

The disbanding of the opposition came shortly after the June 2017 commune elections, in which the CNRP won nearly 44 per cent of the seats. Its strong showing led analysts to believe that the party was dissolved amid fears it could beat the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the 2018 national elections.

In autumn 2017 CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested on treason charges and many of the party’s top leaders went into exile. Dozens of CNRP members were arrested in the intervening years, and more than 100 were barred from politics for five years. At the local and national level, seats held by the opposition were distributed among other parties. Today, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party holds all 125 seats in parliament and over 95 per cent of commune seats.

Repression has worsened in the intervening years, with even minimal criticism met with severe punishment.

In spite of an ostensible separation between powers, Cambodia’s judiciary is deeply politicised, with government-appointed judges widely alleged to be lacking impartiality.

Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute and former Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association, says the latest cases represent ‘a deeply worrying trend that has been going on the last years where the country is sliding away from democracy and the rule of law.’

‘The harassment, arrest of and attacks on journalists and other perceived opponents have increased,’ she says. ‘The technique used is seen in many countries. The courts as well as the prosecutors lack independence and seem to be under the control of the executive power. The undermining of civil society and the disrespect for national and international law is indeed very tragic.’

The Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association reported that it had recorded ‘38 cases of harassment against journalists, involving 56 journalists,’ between January and early September.

Harassment to create a chilling effect represents just one end of the spectrum. At the far end are the steep charges and sentences that have been handed down to activists.

But while prominent activists like Chhun have long drawn the ire of the government – and been treated accordingly – courts appear to be increasingly taking up cases against relatively obscure individuals. Two of Chhun’s co-defendants were sentenced to 20 months in prison after protesting his arrest, for example.

The cumulative impact of these arrests and others – such as those of the environmentalists who filmed the sewage – is to create a chilling effect among ordinary citizens, say observers. As a result, journalists and others report that they increasingly self-censor their work, public statements and social media posts.

Sopheap of CCHR says the most recent cases represent a ‘heightened targeting of activists [that] is also reflective of the ever-worsening deterioration of the human rights situation in Cambodia.’

‘Activists operate in an increasingly dangerous and restrictive environment and imprisonment has sadly become a common price to pay by all those who dare to speak out for human rights in Cambodia,’ she explains. ‘Despite the international commitments that the RGC [Royal Government of Cambodia] has made, it has shown no genuine efforts to redress the dire human rights situation in the country.’

Sopheap adds that, instead, authorities are relentless in their efforts to curtail fundamental freedoms and to use repressive tactics to suppress critical voices. They do this by means including ‘enacting repressive laws and weaponizing the subservient judiciary to harass human rights defenders, opposition members, and other dissidents.’

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