NGOs Raise Concern Over Freedom of Expression to UN
Seven NGOs have raised their concerns that the government is using the law, media and Internet to further stifle freedom of expression, ahead of Cambodia submitting its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights to the U.N.
The UPR is the process through which Geneva’s 47-member Human Rights Council assesses the human rights record of every U.N. member state.
NGOs were given until the end of June to give their input and after filing its first progress report in October—which will update the council on 91 human rights recommendations Cambodia accepted in 2009—an official delegation will travel there early next year to have the report reviewed.
Although it is dated June 24, the 12-page submission by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, PEN International and Cambodian PEN, International Publishers Association, ARTICLE 19, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance was made public late Thursday.
“The [government] routinely targets journalists, non-governmental organizations and human rights defenders with legal and physical threats, which instill a deep sense of fear within the population and create a climate of self-censorship,” it says.
“Several Cambodian national laws actively restrict the right to freedom of expression, with vague and overboard language that allows for their arbitrary enforcement against critics of the government.”
The failure to decriminalize defamation, for instance, is one example the NGOs use to illustrate their point. They also said that the charge of “incitement to commit a felony” is used to silence human rights defenders, while the charge of “disinformation” is routinely abused by the judiciary.
A controversial law on the denial of Khmer Rouge crimes, which swept through the National Assembly without debate or a quorum of lawmakers, was also flagged in the submission.
“Holding an individual criminally liable for denials of historical events amounts to an unacceptable restriction on the right to freedom of expression,” it says.
The groups also note that Cambodia has failed to adopt a freedom of information law, “despite commitments dating back to 2007” from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Drafts of such a law were rejected in 2010 and 2012, and the groups said a third draft this year was “dismissed by the ruling party on the basis that it was unconstitutional, despite international experts finding it to contain many of the main features of an effective freedom of information law.”
When it accepted the 91 recommendations, the group said Cambodia committed to ensuring freedom of expression and the press, but that “neither are a reality in Cambodia.”
The mainstream television and radio channels are dominated by broadcasters owned by the ruling party or powerful people connected with it, skewing reporting in favor of the CPP.
They also noted several attempts to censor certain websites deemed to be critical of the government, and said they are concerned a proposed cyber law will be restrictive.
With regard to the climate of freedom for NGOs, the submission makes note of the six-month suspension of land rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut on an allegedly trumped-up incitement accusation, the charging of Adhoc rights worker Chan Soveth for aiding a man involved in a land dispute and the murder of environmental activist Chut Wutty, all of which took place in 2012.
Mak Sambath, vice president of the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), said in May that about 80 percent of the recommendations have been implemented. On Friday, he defended the government’s human rights record.
“It’s been three decades of having civil societies report like this,” he said of the submission.
“They have continued to discredit the government’s efforts in developing freedom of expression, respect of human rights and other improvements in term of freedom of speech, media and Internet.”
He denied the claims that the quality of freedom of expression is deteriorating and accused the groups of “campaigning for the opposition party.”
He said the CHRC has held five inter-ministerial meetings on the progress report, which is due on October 28.