Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. Since 2017, however, the government has carried out a sustained campaign to eliminate independent news media and dissenting voices in the country and enacted ever-greater restrictions on free expression; many individuals and institutions reported widespread self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution grants freedom of expression except where it adversely affects public security. The constitution also declares 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, or 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 2018 election; news outlets gave significantly greater coverage to the CPP than to other parties.
The government used the penal code to arrest and 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. Police and courts interpreted “incitement” broadly, leading to more than 40 arrests for statements posted to social media during the year.
In February 2018 the government adopted a new lese–majeste (royal insult) law that led to the arrest of at least three citizens. On January 9, Ieng Cholsa was sentenced to three years in prison for Facebook posts deemed insulting to the king. The government used criminal defamation laws to pursue perceived opponents. In September self-exiled former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy was charged with public defamation and incitement to commit felony when he accused Hun Sen of using the king as a hostage and a puppet.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government, military forces, and the ruling political party continued to own or otherwise influence newspapers and broadcast media; there were few significant independent sources for news. The three largest pro-CPP newspapers did not criticize the government for politically motivated acts or human rights issues. In 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.
The May 2018 National Election Committee (NEC) code of conduct for the September 2018 election established a maximum fine of 30 million riel ($7,500) for reporters who interviewed any voter near a polling station or who published news that could affect political stability or cause the public to lose confidence in the election.
Violence and Harassment: Threats and violence against journalists and reporters remained common. On January 30, Sim Chhivchhean, a reporter for the Cambodia Media Association for Freedom, was beaten unconscious while reporting on illegal fishing in Siem Reap Province. On February 4, a group of about 20 men stoned and beat Sorn Sithy to death. The motive was unknown as of October, but Sithy had been working for a year for BTBP TV online, covering social issues.
As of October, two former RFA journalists arrested in 2017 on charges of treason (charges which observers said were politically motivated), to which authorities later added charges of distribution of pornography, were awaiting the conclusion of their trial after several court hearings. On October 3, the court referred the case back to investigators for more evidence collection. NGOs and observers argued that the case against the two journalists was politically motivated and pointed to the prolonged trial and the confiscation of their passports as proof of government intimidation of the media.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits prepublication censorship, and no formal censorship system existed. The government, however, used other means to censor media, most notably through its control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets not controlled directly by the government or the CPP. Private media admitted to practicing some degree of self-censorship, in part from fear of government reprisal. Reporters claimed that newspaper editors told them not to write on topics that would offend the government and have also reported self-censoring due to the chilling effect of recent criminal cases against journalists.
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. In December 2018 CNRP leader Sam Rainsy was convicted of libel and ordered to pay one million dollars in damages to Prime Minister Hun Sen after publicly accusing the prime minister of accepting bribes. Rainsy has been living in exile since 2014, when he fled the country to avoid previous libel charges filed against him.
National Security: The government continued to cite national security concerns to justify restricting citizens’ rights to criticize government policies and officials.