Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary government. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 National Assembly seats in the July 29 national election, having banned the chief opposition party in November 2017. Prior to the victory, Prime Minister Hun Sen had already served for 33 years. International observers, including foreign governments and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and domestic NGOs criticized the election as neither free nor fair and not representative of the will of the Cambodian people.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces, which often threatened force against those who opposed Prime Minister Hun Sen and were generally perceived as an armed wing of the ruling CPP.
Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings carried out by the government or on its behalf; forced disappearance carried out by the government; torture by the government; arbitrary arrests by the government; political prisoners; arbitrary interference in the private lives of citizens, including pervasive electronic media surveillance; censorship and selectively enforced criminal libel laws; interference with the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; pervasive corruption, including in the judiciary; and use of forced or compulsory child labor.
The government did not provide evidence of having prosecuted any officials for abuses, including corruption. A pervasive culture of impunity continued.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including the press; however, in 2017-18 the government carried out a sustained campaign to eliminate independent news media in the country, and most individuals and institutions reported on the need for self-censorship.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, during the year the government spent much effort to weaken the independent press and enacted ever greater restrictions on free expression.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution grants freedom of expression except where it adversely affects public security. The constitution also declares that the king is “inviolable,” and a Ministry of Interior directive implementing the criminal defamation law reiterates these limits and prohibits publishers and editors from disseminating stories that insult or defame the king, government leaders, and public institutions.
Election laws require civil society organizations to remain “neutral” during political campaigns and prohibit them from “insulting” political parties in the media. Although campaign laws require news outlets to give equal coverage to each party participating in an election, there was no evidence of the law’s enforcement during the year, and news outlets gave significantly greater coverage to the CPP than to other parties.
The government used the penal code to prosecute citizens on disinformation and incitement charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Judges also can order fines, which may lead to jail time if not paid. Courts interpreted “incitement” broadly, and senior government officials threatened to prosecute opposition figures on incitement charges for acts including calling for a “change in government” by electoral means.
In February the government amended the law to criminalize royal insult. As of September the government had arrested at least three persons for insulting the monarch. On October 4, a court in Siem Reap convicted barber Ban Samphy, a member of the dissolved CNRP, to seven months’ imprisonment after he allegedly shared a Facebook post about King Norodom Sihamoni in May. It was the first such conviction since the government adopted the royal insult law.
A statement released by 117 NGOs in June expressed concern over government suppression of their freedom of expression and privacy rights due to government monitoring of their private telephone calls and social media.
Press and Media Freedom: A majority of Khmer-language newspapers were either owned directly by or received financial support from persons closely associated with the ruling CPP. The government, military forces, and the ruling political party continued to influence broadcast media. The great majority of domestic radio and television stations operated under the control or influence of the CPP. The three largest pro-CPP newspapers never criticized the government for politically motivated acts or human rights issues. As of August no pro-opposition newspapers published regularly, and authorities never permitted the CNRP to open a television station, despite a 2014 agreement to allow it.
In May the NEC issued a code of conduct for the September election, telling reporters they would face a maximum penalty of a 30 million riel ($7,500) fine if they interviewed any voter near a polling station, or if they published news that could affect political stability or cause the public to lose confidence in the election. Also in May the government appeared to engineer the sale of the country’s last remaining independent newspaper to a Malaysian businessperson who advertised his business as “covert public relations.”
In September 2017 the Cambodia Daily, one of two independent English-language newspapers, closed its offices after 25 years of operation. The government accused the newspaper of evading taxes amounting to 25.2 billion riel ($6.3 million). Tax authorities, however, did not present detailed information about the charges, and information about the tax arrears leaked quickly to government-controlled media–despite legal requirements on the government to resolve tax noncompliance cases privately. In August 2017 the government shuttered 32 FM radio frequencies across 20 provinces, affecting stations relaying independent news–Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America, and the Voice of Democracy.
Violence and Harassment: Threats and violence against journalists and reporters remained common. According to the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), 38 percent of reporters said government authorities either verbally attacked or physically assaulted them in 2017.
In the May 2017 communal elections, authorities charged two Cambodia Daily reporters with “incitement” and violation of voter rights for allegedly asking individuals about their voting preferences. Both reporters fled the country; the case against them continued in absentia.
Authorities released two former RFA journalists on bail in September, after their November 2017 arrest on charges of treason, to which authorities later added charges of distribution of pornography.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits prepublication censorship, and no formal censorship system existed. The government increasingly used other means to suppress traditional and social media. In addition to threats, violence, harassment, arrests, and surveillance, the government used its control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets not controlled directly by the government or CPP. Private media admitted to practicing some degree of self-censorship, in part from fear of government reprisal. According to the CCIM, 67 percent of reporters felt afraid to report on political and human rights issues.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel, slander, defamation, and denunciation laws to restrict public discussion on issues it deemed sensitive or against its interests. On August 17, authorities released Kim Sok after he served an 18-month prison sentence following a complaint lodged by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun Sen claimed that Sok accused him of responsibility for the killing of Kem Ley. As of September, Kim Sok had not yet paid 800 million riels ($200,000) in fines and compensation to the prime minister; failure to pay could result in another two years’ imprisonment. Sok also faced charges of defaming the CPP, whom he accused of hiring murderers.
National Security: The government continued to cite national security concerns to justify restricting citizens’ rights to criticize government policies and officials. In particular the government routinely threatened to prosecute and arrest anyone who questioned the demarcation of the country’s border with Vietnam or suggested the government had ceded national territory to Vietnam.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content, and there were credible reports of government entities monitored private online communications. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 34 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
The telecommunications law was widely criticized by leading civil society and human rights activists, who stated it provides the government broad authority to monitor secretly online public discussion and communications using private telecommunication devices. The law gives the government legal authority to monitor every telephone conversation, text message, email, social media activity, and correspondence between individuals without their knowledge or consent. Any opinions expressed in these exchanges that the government deemed to violate its definition of national security could result in a maximum 15 years’ imprisonment.
In May the government issued an interministerial regulation entitled “Publication Controls of Website and Social Media Processing via Internet in the Kingdom of Cambodia.” The regulation gives the government authority to shut down any social media page or website that published information leading to “turmoil in the society that undermined national defense, national security, national relations with other countries, economy, social order, discrimination or national culture or tradition.” The regulation was invoked for the first time three days before the July 29 national election, when the government ordered local telecommunication companies to block several independent news websites, including Voice of America in Khmer, RFA Khmer, and Voice of Democracy.
A “Cyber War Team” in the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit was responsible for monitoring and countering “incorrect” information from news outlets and social media. The Quick Reaction Unit published several videos claiming civil society, independent media, and the opposition were colluding with foreign powers to overthrow the government. The government often used these videos as justification to crack down on those who opposed the rule of the prime minister. During the 2018 election campaign, the prime minister regularly threatened that his cyber experts could identify the telephone of anyone who posted a defamatory Facebook post within four minutes and to a range of five feet.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
In general there were no formal or overt government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although scholars tended to exercise caution when teaching political subjects due to fear of offending politicians. Many individuals in academia resorted to self-censorship or expressed their opinions anonymously. In July civil society activists criticized the government for vote buying when the Ministry of Education ordered schools shut for three days to allow students to return to their home provinces to vote. Critics considered the move significant in the context of an election where the government openly sought to boost voter turnout to bolster the election’s legitimacy because it did not apply this policy equally across sectors. For example the government did not give factory workers extra days off work to vote.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not always respect this right.
The Law on Associations and Nongovernmental Organizations (LANGO) requires all groups to register and requires advance notification for meetings, training, protests, marches, or demonstrations, although authorities inconsistently enforced this requirement. One provision requires five days’ notice for most peaceful demonstrations, while another requires 12 hours’ notice for impromptu gatherings on private property or protests at designated venues and limits such gatherings to 200 persons. By law provincial or municipal governments may issue demonstration permits at their discretion. Lower-level government officials, particularly in Phnom Penh, generally denied requests unless the national government specifically authorized the gatherings. All levels of government routinely denied permits to groups critical of the ruling party.
There were credible reports the government prevented associations and NGOs from organizing human rights-related events and meetings, because those NGOs failed to receive permission from local authorities; however, the law does not require preapproval any such events. Authorities cited the need for stability and public security–terms left undefined in the law and therefore subject to wide interpretation–as reasons for denying permits. Government authorities occasionally cited the LANGO simply to break up meetings and trainings deemed hostile to the government.
Despite these restrictions the press reported numerous public protests, most related to land or labor disputes. In some cases police forcibly dispersed peaceful groups assembled without a permit, sometimes causing minor injuries to demonstrators. In other cases police used force against demonstrators after they interfered with traffic, made threats or carried out acts of violence, or refused orders to disperse.
According to a joint report released in August by the CCHR, ADHOC, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, from April 2017 to March, there were 48 incidents of NGOs prevented by authorities from holding meetings, training, or gatherings due to LANGO provisions. The report also recorded 539 restrictions of fundamental freedoms by the government and third-party entities linked to the government between April 2017 and March, a 52 percent increase from the previous year. Although the vast majority of restrictions occurred in Phnom Penh, restrictions were documented in every province except Prey Veng and Kep. The government sometimes took legal action against peaceful protesters. On February 14, authorities arrested four union leaders and charged them with organizing an illegal strike at the Cosmo Textile Factory in Kandal Province. In October 2017 authorities arrested five persons who planned to distribute leaflets during the Water Festival to call for demonstrations to demand the government release political prisoners. On the same day, the Phnom Penh municipal court summoned Leng Seng Hong, president of the Cambodian Democratic Student Intellectual Federation, to appear in court on charges of incitement to commit felony for appealing to the public to protest if the CNRP was dissolved.
Senior government and military officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Phnom Penh Governor Khoung Sreng, CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan, Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan, and armed forces Commander in Chief Pol Sarouen, warned the public not to gather or demonstrate in the capital during the trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha following his arrest in September 2017.
In April the NEC threatened to prosecute anyone who urged voters to boycott the elections. In June it sent a message to mobile phone subscribers forbidding “criticizing, attacking, or comparing their party policies to other parties.” Government officials threatened that persons who boycotted the election but inked their fingers to indicate they had voted would receive punishment.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not always respect this right, particularly with regard to workers’ rights (see section 7.a.). The law requires all associations and NGOs to be politically neutral, which not only restricts the right to association but also restricts those organizations’ rights to free expression.
In June 2017 Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the Ministry of Interior to dissolve the Situation Room, a consortium of 40 of the country’s prominent human rights NGOs, after it issued findings on the conduct of the June 4 communal elections. The Situation Room was charged with violating the LANGO for failing to register as an NGO (although each of the 40 constituent NGOS were registered individually) and for violating the LANGO provisions on political neutrality. After COMFREL, the lead NGO in the Situation Room, announced it would unofficially observe election-day atmospherics without entering polling stations, it received a warning from the Ministry of Interior that any COMFREL volunteers found observing the election would be subject to legal penalties.
In September 2017 the government dissolved environmental NGO Mother Nature without explanation, simply issuing a letter stating the Interior Ministry’s power to do so: “The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior (Sar Kheng) decides to cancel the Mother Nature organization…from the list of the nongovernmental organizations of the Ministry of Interior.”
In August 2017 authorities forced the National Democratic Institute to cease operations in the country, after authorities found it did not properly register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (despite a valid memorandum of understanding with the NEC).
In September 2017 the Ministry of Interior also suspended the operations of land rights NGO Equitable Cambodia due to what the ministry alleged were violations of the organization’s own bylaws and failures to update the ministry with the most recent staff roster. The ministry finally permitted the NGO to reopen in February.
Vaguely worded provisions in several laws prohibit any activity that may “jeopardize peace, stability, and public order” or harm “national security, national unity, traditions, and the culture of Cambodian society.” Civil society organizations expressed concern these provisions created a substantial risk of arbitrary restriction of the right of association. According to critics, the laws on associations and trade unions (see section 7.a.) establish heavily bureaucratic, multistep registration processes that lack both transparency and administrative safeguards, rendering registration processes vulnerable to politicization. These laws also impose burdensome reporting obligations on activities and finances, including the disclosure of all successful funding proposals, financial or grant agreements, and bank accounts.
The local NGO consortium Cooperation Committee for Cambodia reported in July that NGOs generally lacked guidance from the government on how to comply with the requirements.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
Exile: In previous years government critics and opposition politicians often went into self-imposed foreign exile. In some cases the government subsequently took steps to block exiles’ return. Thai authorities forcibly returned one local labor activist with refugee status in Thailand to Cambodia in February.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: Alleging that their claim to asylum was weak and that they were “economic migrants,” the government began deportation proceedings against 29 Vietnamese Christian Montagnards. These were the latest cases in the refoulement of at least 140 Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam since 2015. Some NGOs attributed this policy to pressure from the Vietnamese government. Following a critical August 2017 statement by Rhona Smith, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, in which she acknowledged the legitimacy of the asylum claims of 36 Vietnamese Christian Montagnards, the Cambodian government sent seven of the Montagnards to a third country. The government also dismissed the special rapporteur’s statement and condemned her for interference in the country’s domestic affairs.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The system, however, is not equally accessible to all refugees and asylum seekers (see above).
Employment: Persons granted refugee status do not have the right to work.
Access to Basic Services: Persons granted refugee status do not have access to basic services, including public and banking services.
Durable Solutions: By agreement with Australia, in 2014 the government began accepting for domestic resettlement seven refugees detained while seeking asylum in Australia. The last refugee arrived in April 2017. Of the seven, three who were Rohingya from Burma remained in the country, while the other four–one from Burma and three Iraqis–chose to return to their home countries. Although the three Rohingya refugees decided to stay in the country, no effective pathway to citizenship existed for them. During the year one of the remaining refugees threatened a hunger strike unless authorities reunited him with his family.
The country had habitual residents who were de facto stateless. There were no recent, reliable data on the number or demography of stateless persons; however, UNHCR reported they were primarily ethnic Vietnamese. The government did not effectively implement laws or policies to provide such persons the opportunity to gain nationality (see section 6, Children). The most common reason for statelessness was lack of proper documents from the country of origin.
According to an NGO, individuals without proof of nationality often did not have access to formal employment, education, marriage registration, the courts, or the right to own land.