Holding an Asian media meeting in Cambodia makes a mockery of freedom of expression and press freedom, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia will host the 16th Asia Media Summit from June 10-14, 2019 in Siem Reap. Summit participants should publicly call for an end to Cambodian government suppression of the print and electronic media.The summit is organized by the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), which was established under the auspices of UNESCO, the United Nations agency whose mandate includes protecting media freedom. UNESCO and two other UN agencies are members of the AIBD General Conference. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who will preside over the opening ceremony, has overseen the dismantling of independent radio, TV, print media, and social media in the country.

“It’s absurd for this UN-linked event to be held in Cambodia when the government has closed all independent local newspapers, kicked critical radio shows off the air, and effectively controls all TV stations,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Countries attending the Asia Media Summit, and UNESCO, should confront Hun Sen and publicly call for allowing independent media outlets to reopen and ending the harassment of journalists.”

The suppression of the media and critics of the government intensified prior to the July 2018 national election.

In August 2017, the Cambodian authorities ordered the closure of 32 FM radio frequencies across 20 of Cambodia’s provinces, particularly stations that relayed Khmer language news broadcasts by Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA), and Voice of Democracy. After RFA decided to close its office in Phnom Penh in September 2017 due to alleged systematic government harassment of its reporters, senior officials from the Ministries of Interior and Information threatened any journalists found to still be filing media reports to RFA, saying that they would be treated as spies.

On November 14, 2017, Cambodian authorities arrested two former RFA journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, alleging that they had illegally set up a broadcast studio to file news reports to RFA’s headquarters in Washington, DC. Both were released on bail in August 2018, after over nine months in what the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called“arbitrary” deprivation of liberty. But the investigating judge decided in March 2019 to formally charge both former reporters with espionage under article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code and sent the case to trial.

In March 2018, a separate set of unfounded pornography charges (article 39 of the 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation) were laid against both journalists as well. If convicted, both could potentially be imprisoned for a total of 16 years. The charges against them should be dropped.

In September 2017, The Cambodia Daily, one of the country’s few remaining independent local newspapers, was forcibly shut after being handed a highly dubious unpaid tax bill of US$6.3 million. In May 2018, the government coerced the sale of the last independent local newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, to a Malaysian businessman with reported ties to the Cambodian government by hitting the newspaper with a questionable unpaid tax bill of US$3.9 million.

Television in Cambodia has always been state-owned or controlled by Hun Sen’s family and cronies. Broadcasts contain overwhelmingly pro-Cambodian People’s Party news and viewpoints and criticize opposition voices.

Social media networks have increasingly come under attack. Due to the closure of democratic and civic space throughout the country, critics of the government have taken to Facebook, which sparked a spike of politically motivated harassment cases linked to Facebook posts.

This government crackdown on social media and independent media outlets generally was facilitated by a series of repressive laws, for which Hun Sen spearheaded passage prior to the 2018 election. These laws include amendments to the penal code introducing a lese majeste (“insulting the king”) clause in article 437bis of Cambodia’s Criminal Code, which the Ministry of Information explicitly warned also applied to all media outlets. In 2015, the government adopted the Law on Telecommunications, which provides authorities with unfettered discretion to intercept any communications with the approval of legitimate authorities, without clarifying which authorities hold this approval power.

On May 28, 2018, the government approved an inter-ministerial decree (“prakas”) requiring all internet service providers to install surveillance software to monitor content circulated on the internet. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was ordered to “block or close” all web pages and social media pages containing “illegal [content] … considered as incitement, breaking solidarity, discrimination, create turmoil by will, leading to undermine national security, and public interests and social order.” Earlier that month, the authorities issued an order requiring all internet traffic to pass through a state-owned data management center at the state-owned Telecom Cambodia.

The Council of Ministers also created a so-called Cyber War Team, which monitors online activity that it deems could harm the reputation of the government.

In recent months, media reported, Hun Sen has threatened to enact a “fake news” law and a restrictive cybercrime law, apparently along the lines of Singapore’s oppressive new law.

In late May, the Information Ministry announced after a meeting with US Embassy representatives that it was “in principle [willing] to allow Voice of America (VOA) to open its representative office in Cambodia” again. This pledge will be meaningless unless VOA is permitted to broadcast from Cambodia and its journalists are permitted to operate free from government harassment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Cambodia’s government has gone to great lengths to silence the country’s previously vibrant press,” Robertson said. “The European Union and other trade partners should make clear that Hun Sen’s failure to reverse his repression of the media will come at a cost.”