Amid growing restrictions on civic space and press freedoms in Cambodia, journalists are being increasingly subjected to various forms of harassment, pressure, and violence, according to a new report published on Wednesday by the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR).
All of the 65 journalists interviewed in the State of Press Freedom in Cambodia said they had faced some form of interference in the course of their work – and more than 80 per cent described being put under surveillance, facing disproportionate or unnecessary restrictions, including access to information.
“The findings in this report are very concerning, and I urge the authorities to take on board our recommendations to ensure the media can carry out their vital work fairly and transparently for the benefit of all Cambodians,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
Shrinking civic space
In the report, OHCHR in Cambodia outlined the country’s increasing lack of press freedom and freedom of expression, by examining the legal framework; the state of media ownership; and specific challenges faced by women media workers.
For years, Cambodian authorities have actively adopted legislation restricting civic space generally, and press freedom in particular, the report outlined.
Moreover, laws and other instruments have been adopted to empower the authorities to censor and place journalists and others under surveillance and extend the government’s ability to curtail media work and freedom of expression through the courts.
Press freedom is of particular importance in the context of elections, which recently took place, according to the report.
A free press plays a vital role in ensuring that voters can inform themselves of the issues at stake and allow candidates to convey their messages to the electorate.
“By ensuring that the press can report freely and safely, authorities are helping to create an environment for political participation and debate,” the report spelled out.
Women journalists’ challenges
State of Press Freedom also shines a light on the plight of women journalists, who it said are hugely under-represented in Cambodia.
According to the Ministry of Information, only 470 women out of approximately 5,000 journalists are female. This equals less than one in ten journalists.
Numerous women journalists and media workers face gender-based attacks, the report highlights, including physical harassment by male police and authorities, gender-based discrimination and violence rooted in discriminatory practices and social norms.
Since January 2017, the UN Human Rights Office in Cambodia has documented cases involving 23 journalists who have faced criminal charges for disinformation, defamation or incitement as a result of their work.
Open-ended laws such as the law against the spread of COVID-19 and the 2022 Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway, give the Government wide-ranging powers to block information and punish unspecific crimes, and should be repealed, it added.
The report makes 15 recommendations aimed at providing a safer and more pluralistic and gender-sensitive operating space for media workers, said OHCHR, adding that it stands ready to provide the necessary support to the Government in implementing them.
One recommendation urges the number of women journalists be published, and another advocates for adopting proactive measures to increase those numbers, including through university programmes and scholarships.
OHCHR is also calling for cases against journalists and media workers to be dropped, where they are simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression.
“A free, independent and pluralistic media plays a central role in every democratic society” said the High Commissioner. “When we defend media freedom, we defend justice, good governance and human rights”.