Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government did not always respect these rights.
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 country’s criminal defamation law reiterates these limits and prohibits publishers and editors from disseminating stories that insult or defame not just the king, but also government leaders and institutions.
Election laws contain provisions that require civil society organizations to remain “neutral” during political campaign periods and prohibit them from “insulting” political parties through media.
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.
Local human rights NGOs, media, and several independent analysts continued to express concern publicly about government actions targeting their work, including the arrests of ADHOC officials. On September 13, authorities arrested Dem Kundy and Hun Vannak, who worked for the NGO Mother Nature, on charges of incitement to commit a felony and violating privacy for filming sand-dredging operations in Koh Kong Province, a politically sensitive environmental issue.
Press and Media Freedom: A majority of Khmer-language newspapers received financial support from persons closely associated with the ruling CPP.
On September 4, The Cambodia Daily, an independent English language newspaper that had published uninterrupted since 1993, ceased operations a week after it received a warning from the government to pay tax arrears calculated at more than $6 million. The newspaper’s director of press claimed the government used the charge of tax evasion as a pretext to shutter independent press freedom in the country. Tax authorities refused to present detailed information about the tax charges, and information about the arrears quickly leaked to government-controlled media, despite laws calling for the government to attempt to resolve issues of tax noncompliance privately.
The three largest pro-CPP newspapers never criticized the government for politically motivated or human rights problems. As of August no pro-opposition newspapers published regularly, and the government restricted critical voices on electronic publications and social media.
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. In August the government shut down CNRP-aligned Moha Nokor radio station and closed all stations broadcasting content from the Voice of America (VOA) and Voice of Democracy (VOD), claiming the stations violated the law by committing tax evasion and for failing to obtain permission from the Ministry of Information before airing new content. According to an NGO that monitors media, the government routinely used state and state-influenced private television stations to promote the activities of the government and the CPP and to criticize the opposition, while not granting the opposition parties equal access. On September 12, Radio Free Asia (RFA) announced closure of its office in the country, citing legal harassment and a government crackdown on independent media prior to national elections. On November 14, authorities arrested two former RFA journalists on charges of espionage and for allegedly helping foment a “color revolution” in the country. The charges were widely seen as politically motivated.
Authorities never permitted the CNRP to open a television station, despite a 2014 agreement from the government to allow it.
Violence and Harassment: Threats and violence against journalists and reporters remained common. In May local authorities in Ratanakiri Province briefly detained six journalists for reporting on illegal logging in the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area. On August 28, authorities charged two Cambodia Daily reporters with “inciting violence” for election-related coverage in Ratanakiri.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits prepublication censorship, and no formal censorship system existed. The government, however, increasingly used other means to censor the media and social media following the assassination of Kem Ley, the arrest of some government critics, and by threats from the government, including the prime minister. Methods included harassment and intimidation. Because the government controls permits and licenses for journalists, most media outlets not directly controlled by the government or CPP practiced self-censorship to some degree. Some reporters and editors continued to self-censor their reporting due to fear of government reprisal. Some media agencies reported receiving calls from the Ministry of Interior threatening to revoke their licenses if they did not cease broadcasting opposition-produced content and programs produced by VOA, RFA, and VOD.
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. Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a lawsuit against political analyst and commentator Kim Sok for his online accusation that the government was complicit in the murder of Kem Ley. In August the courts sentenced Kim Sok to 18 months in prison and fined him 800 million riels ($200,000).
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, censored online content, and there were credible reports government entities monitored private online communications. According to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, more than 31 percent of the population had internet access, primarily those living in urban areas.
The telecommunications law was widely criticized by leading civil society and human rights activists, who stated it provides the government broad authority secretly to monitor online public discussion and communications using private telecommunication devices. According to Licadho the law gave 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 maximum imprisonment of 15 years.
As of October a local human rights NGO stated authorities arrested at least five persons for content they posted online. One woman was threatened by the government in April for posting online a video of herself throwing a shoe at a billboard depicting the prime minister.
A “Cyber War Team” in the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit is responsible for monitoring and countering “incorrect” information from news outlets and social media. The Quick Reaction Unit was responsible for publishing 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.
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 May 2016 the Ministry of Education reminded public and private education institutions the education law strictly prohibits all political activities and discussions on school campuses. Senior government officials again reminded public education institutions of the law in the months leading up to the June 4 local commune council elections. Many activists asserted the law aims to stifle youth support of the opposition, adding that most school principals supported the CPP. Government officials appeared to exempt some large campus-based organizations affiliated with the ruling party, however, including one run by the prime minister’s son, stating these were “extracurricular” groups that promoted “humanitarian causes.” In August a district governor in Battambang Province dismissed a vice principal of a high school for allegedly teaching students about “politics.”
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not always respect this right.
The LANGO requires all groups to register and also 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 occasionally prevented associations and NGOs from organizing public events, arguing the groups had not registered. Regulations promulgated before the June 4 commune council elections allowed civil servants to campaign after working hours, but did not grant the same freedoms to employees of NGOs or others working in civil society. Following the September 3 arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, many provincial governments prohibited meetings, events, and demonstrations by the opposition CNRP even before its forced dissolution on November 16.
Authorities cited the need for stability and public security–terms not defined in the law and therefore subject to wide interpretation–as reasons for denying permits. Government authorities also occasionally cited provisions of the law to prevent associations and NGOs from organizing public events or to break up meetings and training deemed hostile to the government. At the same time, the government routinely allowed progovernment demonstrators to gather.
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 of 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 2016 to March, there were 60 incidents of NGOs prevented by authorities from holding meetings, training, or gatherings due to LANGO provisions. The report also recorded 246 restrictions of fundamental freedoms by the government and third-party entities linked to the government between April and September. 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 October 27, 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 the 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 hearings of opposition leader Kem Sokha following his September 3 arrest. Minister of Defense Tea Banh publically called for “crushing the opposition” warning the military would “smash the teeth of protesters” planning to demonstrate against June 4 commune election results. Minister of Social Affairs Vong Sauth said demonstrators who dispute the upcoming 2018 elections would be “hit with …bamboo poles.” The commander of the prime minister’s bodyguards, General Hing Bun Heng, threatened to use force to “crush” any demonstration, citing his possession of “100 tanks.”
Minister of Interior Sar Kheng also instructed provincial governors and police chiefs to block opposition supporters from traveling to the capital and to prevent any demonstrations. Khoung Sreng said authorities would not allow “anarchic” protests in the city and that security forces in all 12 districts of the capital needed to be on alert: “The toughest measures will be applied on the people protesting against the court and [we] won’t forgive those people,” Khoung Sreng said. The threats against peaceful protests followed months of warnings against protesting election results. Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened that a CNRP victory in June commune elections would lead to “civil war.”
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 LANGO 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 Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the Ministry of Interior to dissolve The Situation Room, a consortium of 40 of the country’s most prominent human rights NGOs, after they issued findings on the conduct of the June 4 commune 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.
Vaguely worded provisions in the LANGO, the Law on Trade Unions (TUL), and Amended Political Parties Law prohibit any activity that may “jeopardize peace, stability, and public order” or harm “national security, national unity, traditions, and 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 LANGO and TUL (see section 7.a.) establish heavily bureaucratic, multistep registration processes that lack both transparency and administrative safeguards, rendering the 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. As of August the Ministry of Economy and Finance had summoned six civil society and media organizations to prove their compliance with local tax laws. This included ADHOC, Licadho, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, The Cambodia Daily, VOA, and RFA.
On September 15, the Ministry of Interior nullified the registration of Mother Nature, a local NGO working on environmental protection, without providing justification to the organization. In late September the government began requiring all NGOs to report their management structures, funding sources, and other details to the Ministry of Interior. On August 23, the government abruptly ejected the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and its foreign staff from the country, claiming the organization had failed to register properly under the LANGO. NDI had submitted its registration documents more than 18 months prior to its ejection and had failed to receive a reply from government authorities despite a clause in the law that notification was to be given within 45 days of document submission.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
Exile: In 2016 the government ordered immigration officials to take unspecified legal action to prevent former opposition leader Sam Rainsy from returning to the country. He had gone into exile in France in 2015, when the government issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of defamation while he was outside of the country. Thun Saray, the president of ADHOC, escaped the country and remained in Canada under self-imposed exile due to fear of being targeted by the government. Following the arrest of Kem Sokha, nearly every senior leader of the CNRP went into hiding or exile, with acting CNRP President Pol Ham and Parliamentary Whip Son Chhay the only two prominent leaders remaining in the capital while many lower-level party activists reported increased police surveillance and intimidation.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: Stating they were “economic migrants,” the government returned at least 140 Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam since 2015, including 13 in August, without conducting proper refugee status determinations. In August, Rhona Smith, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, released a statement following her two-week mission to the country in which she stated the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acknowledged the legitimacy of the asylum claims of 36 Vietnamese Christian Montagnards and had decided to find a solution outside of the country and that the government had not agreed to settle them in country or facilitate their transit to the third country. In October the government cooperated in sending seven of the 36 Montagnards to the third country, claiming the remaining 29 had weak asylum claims. The government dismissed the special rapporteur’s statement and condemned her for what it described as interference in its domestic affairs.
The government increased monitoring at the UNHCR-managed compound that provides support to Montagnard asylum seekers. In April authorities forcibly removed a pregnant woman and her husband from the premises and took them to an immigration center for questioning. The family was awaiting final refugee status determination, and authorities later released them.
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 government failed to grant equal access to that system for all asylum seekers. In particular, authorities routinely denied access by Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam since 2014. During the year the Refugee Department at the Ministry of Interior recognized three Montagnards as refugees and took proactive steps to deport the 29 persons it claimed had weak asylum claims. Some NGOs attributed the government’s lack of commitment to granting asylum to Montagnards to pressure from the government of Vietnam.
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, the government since 2014 has accepted for domestic resettlement seven refugees detained while seeking asylum in Australia. The last refugee arrived in April. 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 countries. Although the three Rohingya refugees decided to stay in the country, no effective pathway to citizenship existed for them.
The country had habitual residents who were de facto stateless. There was no recent, reliable data on the number or demography of stateless persons; however, UNHCR reported that 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.