Cambodia

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 lesemajeste (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.

There were credible reports that government entities monitored online communications.

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.

The government has the authority to shut down any social media page or website that publishes information leading to “turmoil in the society that undermine[d] national defense, national security, national relations with other countries, the economy, social order, discrimination, or national culture or tradition.” For example, three days before the 2018 national election 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 prime minister has threatened that within four minutes his cyber experts could identify, to within five feet, the telephone of anyone who posted a defamatory Facebook post.

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.

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not always respect this right.

As of October more than 150 CNRP members had been detained or summoned to court for questioning related to their participation in mostly informal gatherings over meals. NGOs reported that during questioning the government accused the opposition officials of violating the 2017 Supreme Court decision to dissolve and ban the CNRP.

The law requires all nongovernmental groups to register and requires advance notification for 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 of 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 law to break up meetings and training programs deemed hostile to the government. Some NGOs and unions complained that police were carefully monitoring their activities and intimidating participants by sending uniformed police to stand outside their offices during meetings.

Despite these restrictions, the press reported a number of unauthorized public protests, most related to land or labor disputes. In at least one case, it was reported that local authorities forcibly dispersed protesters, leading to one protester being critically injured after police opened fire. In other cases, police arrested and charged some demonstrators for trespassing on private property and protesting without a valid permit.

According to a local NGO, as of June there had been 71 cases of violations of freedom of assembly. Another human rights NGO recorded 99 cases of government abuse on the freedom of assembly in the period from April 2018 to March 2019.

On July 10, the authorities detained seven persons for paying tribute to the government critic Kem Ley on the third anniversary of his death. The authorities did not allow NGOs to assemble outside or lay floral wreaths at the Caltex Bokor petrol station where Kem Ley was shot dead.

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.

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 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 2018 that NGOs generally lacked guidance from the government on how to comply with the requirements.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://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: Some government critics and opposition politicians have gone into self-imposed foreign exile. In some cases the government subsequently took steps to block exiles’ return.

Not applicable.

Refoulement: In June the government deported four Montagnards to Vietnam, after one requested to return to Vietnam and the other three were declared ineligible for asylum status.

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 and is not transparent. Asylum seekers who enter the country without documentation or overstay their visas are vulnerable to deportation.

Freedom of Movement: The freedom of movement of persons admitted to the country as refugees is often restricted because they lack documents needed for travel (see below).

Employment: The law allows refugees to work and operate a business. Refugees, however, are generally not provided with residence cards, making it difficult to exercise these rights.

Access to Basic Services: Persons granted refugee status require residence cards. In practice, however, refugees are instead provided with refugee cards, which are not recognized, greatly limiting refugees’ access to basic services.

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. On August 21, local media reported the government had rejected a request from Vietnam to provide Cambodian citizenship to these persons.

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.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future