Fight for free speech finds new avenues

"In the middle of this political chaos Cambodia, with growing social and economic tensions where human rights are being questioned, is facing enormous challenges. Today twenty-seven people have been imprisoned on very obscure grounds."

The regime in Cambodia almost completely controls traditional media. Free radio stations and social media have instead become important arenas for opinion forming. Jens Rosbäck has long been engaged in democracy issues in Cambodia and here he writes about the status of free speech in Cambodia prior to the upcoming elections. 

 
April 18 2017 Text: Jens Rosbäck Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson

 

On the 7th of August in 2015 the student Kong Raya pressed the post button to update his Facebook. At that point he could never imagine what the consequences would be. Perhaps he did not even know what his words really meant. His update was something along these lines: “Does anyone dare to make a colour revolution with me? One day, in the future, I will make a colour revolution to change the regime for the Khmer society, and even if I’m jailed or killed, I will still do it.” 
 
Perhaps as an expression of youthful bravado Raya wanted to one day become the leader of peaceful change in the Cambodian society. However, a few weeks later this Facebook update sent him to prison. His posting showed up as a screen shot on the Government supportive webpage “Fresh News,” and shortly thereafter he was arrested by the police on his arrival at the university on the morning of August 24. 
Nowadays every young Cambodian seems to be on Facebook. In 2010, 320 000 Cambodians had access to the Internet, but only three years later this number had increased to 3.8 million. And 1.76 million have a Facebook account and one thousand new users are signing up every day. It is the abundance of cheap smartphones and the construction of mobile networks that have made this dramatic development possible – a development that has changed the political map completely: suddenly there is a forum where Cambodians can interact with one another beyond the family and the immediate neighbourhood, and stories about the state of the nation travel fast by means of thousands of shares each day. Politics, protests, and traffic incidents are documented by these phones and transformed into true or fictive news that are commented on and debated.
 
In the report Going Offline? The Threat to Cambodia’s Newfound Internet Freedoms, the human rights organisation LICADHO writes that social media today is the only arena in Cambodia where one may openly express one’s opinions. The report was published in May 2015, three months before Kong Raya was arrested. On paper the formal press laws in Cambodia are relatively liberal and media has notably had a relatively high amount of freedom compared to several neighbouring countries. Meanwhile the traditional media have over time become more restrictive in their reporting. Over the years journalists have been threatened, put on trial, and even murdered for having transgressed invisible boundaries. Self-censorship is substantial. As regards broadcasting media the regime is almost in complete control. There are eleven TV channels in Cambodia and all are in some way or another tied to the regime – both the state channels and the private ones. When the opposition party CNRP in 2014, in negotiations with the Prime Minister Hun Sen, tried to get a licence to create their own TV channel they were stopped in various ways despite an agreement with the governing party the CPP.
 
The radio is also dominated by government-friendly channels. However, there are some dynamic exceptions: the Voice of Democracy is a national channel that is not afraid of letting representatives of the opposition air their opinions or to report from events that in some way may be regarded as critique of the regime; and Radio Free Asia is perhaps the most popular independent radio channel that also has a professional news reporting. It is not uncommon though that threats are issued against and pressure is put upon these independent journalists.
 
In the national elections in 2013 the power of social media became noticeable. Although the opposition was completely left out of the news reporting in the broadcasting media they still managed to get across their messages via social media, where many activists, politicians from the opposition, monks, and ordinary civilians voiced their opinions and shared information. The political debate was hereby vitalised and people became more engaged – not in the least among young people (the first after-war generation) voting for the first time. The energy generated from these social media is also spread outside of cyberspace. In the streets of Phnom Penh young activists from the CNRP ride their motorbikes brandishing the CNRP flag and shouting slogans. Pictures and short video clips from these activities have been posted on social media and spread virally. The CPP’s street campaign was much less energetic and media reported that they paid and brought in their activists by bus from the provinces to Phnom Penh. But the CPP still won the election – a win that was compromised by accusations of a rigged election.
 
After the elections there was hope that the regime and the CPP would learn from their loss. But it soon became noticeable that they were unable to do so, or even that they were unwilling to do so. They found themselves walled-in by racketeering and corruption, and, if they were to abstain from power, the ruling elite would probably fear being deemed responsible for the wrongs they had committed. Instead, the repressive actions have accelerated prior to the local elections in 2017 and the national elections in 2018. Meanwhile, deforestation, land-grabbing, and corruption continue to characterise Cambodia’s development after the elections in 2013 – even escalating since before these elections. 
 
Despite their success in the election, the CNRP have not succeeded in gaining politically from the situation. Both by means of politically motivated indictments and open violence the regime has instead managed to sabotage the work of the CNRP. Sam Rainsy, the leader of the CNRP, chose in 2015 to go into exile in order to evade a trial, and some CNRP members of the parliament have been assaulted in full daylight by members of Hun Sen’s personal guards. Several other people have been imprisoned on very shaky charges. Kem Sokha, the Vice Chairperson of the CNRP, barricaded himself for several months at the party head quarters as he had refused to witness in a highly infected court case where he was falsely accused of having a young lover. It was not clear why he was called in to witness and he never really knew who was being charged. Over time, CNRP’s supporters have become increasingly frustrated over the inertia of the system and all the childish squabbling.
 
Other voices have become ever more important in creating an understanding for and some insight into the real problems in the country. Kem Ley, a big, rather quiet middle-aged man with a notable sense of humour, became the interpreter of the present situation in Cambodia. Up until the election in 2013 the situation was unfathomable. He worked with development issues and evaluated foreign aid projects, while also travelling extensively in the country talking to ordinary people and communicating his observations about the state of the nation on Facebook. When he later came to present his observations and analyses on the radio he quickly became a well-known personality. His rather simple way of speaking was appreciated in the Cambodian homes; he understood his audience and was unafraid, open, and candid. His critique was regarded as constructive and realistic. He often critiqued the opposition party. In his work for civil society he encouraged collective action and mobilization.
 
Of course, Ken Ley drew the attention of the regime. When the London-based organisation Global Witness in a report showed how Cambodia’s economic sphere was in detail controlled by the Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family, Kem Ley commented on this on the radio in his normal friendly way. Global Witness had found its data in the database of the Ministry of Economy, which could be easily accessed via their webpage, and on these grounds had managed to reveal an enormous business imperium. (Only a week or so after the release of the report the database was deleted from the webpage). In the report Global Witness present how members of the Prime Minister’s family benefit from, for example, state contracts. Kem Ley was very open in his comment on the affair. In Voice of America on July 8 he said: “This report only shows matters that are officially acknowledged. But if we look at it more like a fish pond then at the moment we are only seeing the fish jumping up over the surface of the water, and it is highly probable that there are more fish under the surface.”
 
Moreover, he said, the Prime Minister and his family, instead of denying everything and threatening to sue, should show the country that their business endeavours are legitimate and that they are paying their taxes in good order.
 
On the 10th of July in 2016, only two days later, Kem Ley was shot to death at a petrol station in central Phnom Penh by a perpetrator whom many believe was hired by the regime. The murderer, who was arrested just after the killing, called himself Chuob Samlab (which means “Meet the Dead”), and he told the police that Kem Ley had owed him three thousand dollars. No one believed in that motive though; not even the murderer’s wife. Chuob Samlab, or Oeut Ang as he was later identified as (not by the police but by some young activist who found him via Facebook), was a typical torpedo who never had had three thousand at his disposal to lend to anybody. The reaction in Phnom Penh was immediate. Thousands of shocked people gathered directly at the spot where he was murdered and as soon as the police investigation was completed they helped to transport Kem Ley’s body to his home. “They suspect that the police will hide evidence if they don’t stay to guard him,” an eye-witness said to the reporter from Al-Jazeera, and continued: “It is the same pattern as before, so everyone knows who is behind it. Those without power can’t do anything like this – this is the face of the dictatorship.”
 
When Kem Ley was taken to his last place of rest in the village of his birth some miles south east of Phnom Penh he was followed by approximately one hundred thousand people. The reporting from this event on television though was non-existent, while at home people talked about the crowds of people that were shown in the clips on Facebook. For many ordinary people this was a tragic moment. Kem Ley himself had suspected that something might happen to him: “If I die, dry your tears and keep on going forward.”
 
Slightly more than half a year after the murder of Kem Ley tension is again building up prior to the coming elections. February has been a dramatic month. The ruling party, the CCP, has definitely come to dominate the political arena. Kem Ley has been succeeded by other observers who express what many people are thinking about the regime. The most prominent of these, Kim Sok, was imprisoned at the end of February. At the same time the trial of Kem Ley’s murderer has begun, but few people believe that those who are really responsible will ever be charged. 
 
At the same time, Sam Rainsy, CNRP’s most prominent party leader, living in exile in Paris, has, together with several imprisoned CNRP activists, resigned. This is because the CPP-controlled parliament has introduced new laws that entail that poitical parties can be outlawed if their representatives have committed criminal offenses. Kem Sokha is now the only party leader of the CNRP, and there is no sign that the political marathon dance of intrigue has any end in sight. 
 
In the middle of this political chaos Cambodia , with growing social and economic tensions where human rights are being questioned, is facing enormous challenges. Today twenty-seven people have been imprisoned on very obscure grounds. Among them are four employees of the human rights organisation ADHOC and Ny Chkrya, the Vice General Secretary for the national electoral council. These five people have now been imprisoned for more than 300 days without trial. Each Monday activists dress up in black to show their solidarity with them and there is a campaign supporting them in social media under the hashtag #freethe5KH. The human rights activist Tep Vanny, who has been awarded a prize by Hillary Clinton in New York, has just been sentenced again to two and a half years imprisonment. Te Vanny, together with many other women, has placed herself on the front-line, even literally, when they have been met by armed police. This fight for human rights on a grass root level is now more often being led by women.
 
On February 22, after eighteen months in the prison Prey Sar, Kong Raya was released and on his release he was met by his parents, teachers, friends, and media. Talking to the reporters it is noticeable that he has difficulties keeping back his tears. But he speaks clearly and with a lot of authority: “If I was fifty per cent dedicated to speaking up before I was sent to prison, then I am one hundred per cent dedicated to do so now. Now I have been in jail and I am no longer afraid.” The scene when he cries and hugs his parents is moving. A rather innocent Facebook update, one that anyone of us might have made out of sheer frustration, has created a frontal figure in the fight for justice and the right to partake in the political discussion.