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- January 30, 2020 8:31 AM
PHNOM PENH – Forty human rights, press and civil society groups on Aug. 19 issued a joint statement, condemning the recent arrest and detention of five journalists and four activists, calling for an impartial investigation into the incident and prosecution of any authorities who acted in violation of the law.
“Independent journalists’ right to report the news freely in Cambodia must be protected, especially when reporting on matters of public interest such as the recent massive deforestation of Phnom Tamao Forest,” the statement read.
“Similarly, individuals and activists have the right to freely document and monitor environmental destruction and rights abuses, and to express their opinions publicly—a right protected by Cambodia’s Constitution and international human rights law,” the statement said.
On Aug. 16, five journalists from Voice of Democracy (VOD) and four activists from the social justice group Khmer Thavrak were detained for seven hours while they were looking in the situation in Phnom Tamao Forest and live streaming on Facebook from Phnom Tamao.
According to the joint statement, Hy Chhay, a VOD videographer, got slapped by a Bodyguard Headquarters (BHQ) officer as he refused to hand over the phone used to record officers questioning his VOD colleagues, while activist Hun Vannak was hit repeatedly by a BHQ officer while being pushed into the back of a truck during his arrest. In the statement, the 40 organizations said they were disappointed by the authorities’ unconscionable abuse of power and use of physical violence against Chhay and Vannak.
Rejecting the arbitrary restrictions imposed on the journalists, the 40 organizations said in the statement that there was no justification for the claim made by the authorities who told the VOD team that photographing, filming, and flying a drone in the area were prohibited as photos and recordings could be used to spread false information.
The 1995 Press Law in Cambodia forbids such pre-publication censorship and seizing media’s equipment such as phones, cameras and drone as the authorities did that day, read the statement whose 40 signatories included the Cambodian Association for Protection of Journalists (CAPJ), the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).
The signatories then called on the Cambodian authorities to uphold the country’s constitution as well as national and international laws to ensure freedom of expression for journalists and human-rights defenders.
In a voice message on his Facebook page on Aug. 16, Prime Minister Hun Sen confirmed that he had sent more than 1,000 of his bodyguards with 113 vehicles to the Phnom Tamao Forest to help clear the land and plant trees. This was following his order issued on Aug. 7 on his Facebook page to cancel development projects and all forest clearing in the area to preserve the forest around the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center.
Following the incident regarding the journalists and activists, Hun Sen on Aug. 17 ordered the Ministry of Agriculture to preserve the protected area of Phnom Tamao and to turn it into a conservation park, saying the private company involved must take responsibility for clearing the forest, even though it was not affecting the zoo.
Tycoon Leng Navatra of the Galaxy Navatra Group and Galaxy Navatra Investment, who was widely criticized over his investment in the Tamao Forest, said on Aug. 16 that he would be responsible for his action and follow the government’s orders. He previously intended to develop the Phnom Tamao buffer zone project and, as he had explained, his company meant to develop the area so that people could buy houses by paying a low monthly fee. The company's project included an industrial park, a tourist area, a waterway, and a power line near the new airport.
Meas Sophorn, spokesperson for the Ministry of Information, said he could not provide any comment on the matter involving the VOD journalists and activists at this point as the ministry has not yet received all the information from the relevant parties in this case. “Therefore, it is quite difficult for the ministry to evaluate, to draw conclusion on the real root cause of this problem,” he said.
However, Sophorn said, if any party thinks their rights and work have been violated, they can use the Law on The Press that is in force to protect their rights as the practice of duties of the authorities and the practice of duties of journalists are both written into the laws.
“The Ministry of Information has always called on and encouraged the authorities, including relevant officers, and journalists to strengthen good cooperation with one another and respect each other’s rights and duties by standing on solidarity and responsibility,” he said.
On Aug. 3, 2022, the UN Human Rights Office issued the report “State of Press Freedom in Cambodia,” which states that journalists in Cambodia are increasingly subjected to various forms of harassment and pressure, as well as violence, as the country's civic space and press freedoms are being restricted.
“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 in a press release of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Aug. 3.
Teng Yalirozy contributed to the story