Cambodia's Free Press Under Fire
By Sophal Ear and John A. Hall
Published: July 27, 2008 (International Herald Tribune)
On the evening of July 11, Khim Sambor, a Cambodian journalist, was shot to death in public by two unidentified men on a motorbike. He was a member of an increasingly endangered species in Cambodia: a journalist for one of only two opposition newspapers still permitted to operate by Prime Minister Hun Sen's government.
Although Cambodia held nominally democratic national elections on Sunday, this is clearly a country in which the Fourth Estate - the free press - is in serious and perhaps terminal jeopardy.
Just a month prior to Sambor's murder, the military police arrested his editor, Dam Sith, after his newspaper reported on allegations about the current foreign minister's role during the Khmer Rouge regime. Although Sith was released after a week in jail and the foreign minister dropped his lawsuit against the editor, he still faces criminal charges of defamation and disinformation under Cambodia's penal code.
Sith's arrest came only days after the Ministry of Information ordered the closing of a provincial radio station, Angkor Ratha FM105.25, shortly after it leased air time to four political parties, none of which happened to include the governing Cambodian People's Party, or CPP.
According to the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 21 local human rights organizations, Khim Sambor's murder was related to his journalism. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has analyzed his most recent articles and found that they dealt with allegations of government corruption, internal rifts inside the governing CPP, and questions about the distribution of benefits from recent Chinese investment in Cambodia.
Sambor is at least the 12th journalist to have been killed since 1992, when the United Nations landed in Cambodia to undertake what was then its largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. The UN ran Cambodia's first national election after a decade of Vietnamese occupation and the Killing Fields. Although a royalist party won that ballot, Hun Sen refused to relinquish power and forced a power-sharing agreement that created an unstable dual prime ministership. He ousted his rival prime minister in a coup in July 1997. Elections in 2003 saw the creation of the world's largest cabinet, with more than 300 ministers, secretaries of state, and undersecretaries, far outnumbering members of parliament and senators, combined.
To be fair, a decade and a half after the UN authority arrived, this election season has shaped up to be Cambodia's least deadly for politicians. The police commissioner of Phnom Penh noted that the number of murders have decreased in comparison to the previous election campaign in July 2003.
With the election on Sunday, Cambodia has entered a new phase of managed democracy: Mostly gone are the brazen assassinations of non-governing party candidates, people like Om Radsady, a former royalist member of Parliament who was killed five months shy of the 2003 ballot by two gunmen in Phnom Penh. Radsady allegedly floated the provocative idea of asking the prime minister to answer questions before the National Assembly concerning anti-Thai riots that had resulted in the burning of the Thai Embassy and the destruction of Thai businesses in January 2003.
While it is no mystery that the CPP will win the current elections in Putin-like fashion, what the governing party needs - more than the veneer of electoral legitimacy - is accountability. The real challenge is not just elections for their own sake - Cambodia has proven that a country can have a series of less and less violent elections that result in the same outcome, in which the governing party consolidates power - but the creation and preservation of checks and balances within single-party rule. These are virtually nonexistent in Cambodia. The judiciary is captured and both the National Assembly and Senate are powerless against an executive that rules by edict.
Cambodians know all too well the Chinese adage: "Kill the chicken to scare the monkey."
Now, the Fourth Estate is under fire. All of the country's television stations are pro-government, while the number of independent radio stations has dwindled to two. Speaking truth to power has never been more difficult than at times like these. Supporting a free press in Cambodia has never been more critical.
Sophal Ear is an assistant professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. John A. Hall is an associate professor at Chapman University School of Law, Orange, California. The views expressed are those of the authors alone.