With increasing restrictions on civil society space and freedom of the press in Cambodia, journalists are increasingly facing various forms of harassment, pressure and violence, according to a new report released by the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) on Wednesday.
All 65 journalists interviewed in the Status of press freedom in Cambodia said they had been interfered with in some way in their work – and more than 80 percent said they had been placed under surveillance and faced with disproportionate or unnecessary restrictions, including access to information.
“The findings in this report are very worrying and I urge the authorities to heed our recommendations to ensure the media can carry out their important work fairly and transparently for the benefit of all Cambodians,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights , Michelle Bachelet.
Shrinking civil society space
In the report, Cambodia’s OHCHR outlined the country’s growing lack of freedom of the press and freedom of expression by examining the legal framework; the condition of media ownership; and specific challenges faced by media professionals.
For years, the Cambodian authorities have actively passed laws restricting civil society space in general and freedom of the press in particular, the report says.
In addition, laws and other instruments have been passed to empower authorities to censor and monitor journalists and others, and expand government powers to restrict media work and freedom of expression through courts.
The shrinking of civil society space is often a prelude to a more general degradation of human rights, Secretary General António Guterres has observed.
freedom of the press
According to the report, freedom of the press is of particular importance in the context of the recent elections.
A free press plays a crucial role in ensuring that voters can learn about the issues at stake and allow candidates to get their messages across to voters.
“By ensuring that the press can report freely and safely, the authorities are helping to create an environment for political participation and debate,” says the report.
The challenges of journalists
state of press freedom also sheds light on the plight of women journalists, who are severely underrepresented in Cambodia.
According to the Ministry of Information, out of around 5,000 journalists, only 470 are women. That’s less than one in ten journalists.
The report highlights that many journalists and media workers face gender-based attacks, including physical harassment by male police officers and authorities, gender discrimination and violence based on discriminatory practices and social norms.
Since January 2017, the UN Human Rights Office in Cambodia has documented cases of 23 journalists being accused of disinformation, defamation or hate speech because of their work.
Perpetual laws such as the COVID-19 Spread Act and the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway Sub-Order of 2022 give the government sweeping powers to block information and punish non-specific crimes and should be repealed, it added.
The report contains 15 recommendations aimed at providing media professionals with a safer, more pluralistic and gender-sensitive workspace, OHCHR said, adding it stands ready to provide the government with the necessary support to implement it.
One recommendation urges publishing the number of women journalists and another advocates taking proactive measures to increase that number, including through university programs and grants.
The OHCHR is also calling for the cases against journalists and media workers to be dropped for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression.
“Free, independent and pluralistic media play a central role in any democratic society,” said the High Commissioner. “When we defend media freedom, we defend justice, good governance and human rights.”