Harvard Human Rights Journal continues its interview initiative with Ou Virak, President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and recipient of the Reebok Human Rights Award. In this three-part interview, conducted this past summer, Virak provides his frank and honest assessment of the prospects for political and media freedoms in Cambodia, the issues facing the Khmer Rouge Tribunals, and larger issues of the human rights framework within Southeast Asia.
In this first part, Virak leads us through a detailed discussion of the state of civil-political freedoms in Cambodia today.
Interviewer: James Tager, J.D. ‘13
Can you start by telling us a bit about the state of freedom of the press in Cambodia today?
Right now, the Ministry of Information has total control over the licensings of all media. This means all newspapers, all television, all radio. The only thing that hasn’t fallen under the purview of the Ministry of Information is the Internet. As one result of this, for example, television is fully controlled by the government. You will never be licensed if you are not pro-CPP [Cambodian People’s Party], or if you promise to be pro-CPP. Even then, you have to have a track record of supporting the government. You cannot come out of the blue and promise never to attack the government; they simply will refuse to believe you. And the government does censor; they monitor TV programs all the time.
An example comes to mind when a certain program started to veer off a bit. The program stared to invite NGOs, not even opposition parties but non-governmental organizations. At first the government seemed to accept this, but after the program’s segments became popular, the Ministry shut down the program.
Licenses are also under yearly review by the Ministry. Of course, there are often no problems at this stage, because normally if you want to run a TV program you pay your dues to the Ministry. By this, I’m not referring to official fees. And not just to one Ministry, either.
Radio is another interesting space; it’s the most listened-to source for news within Cambodia. There’s a lot of space now in radio, and most of the radio stations do not get shut down. Many of the more independent stations got their permission for their frequency and their licensing during the “two-head” government, when there were two Prime Ministers in government. That is why we have more radio stations that are more independent of the CPP.
Of course, radio has its issues as well, although I believe there has been progress. There used to be only one radio station that was willing to air the voice of the opposition; they would sell airtime to the opposition parties. The head of that particular station was often in trouble; in fact, I believe he was jailed twice. But that radio station was the only one to sell airtime to NGOs, and my organization was the first to buy radio time and produce a radio program as an NGO.
We started buying radio time in 2003, and we bought eight hours per day of that station’s airtime. They didn’t have much programming, so after we bought airtime the opposition parties started buying airtime, as well. But it was our NGO programming that was responsible for the popularity of that station. So that one station was a pioneer in the early 2000s, but now there are a few more radio stations that are independent.
And are more NGOs using radio today?
Well, back then, not only were radio stations in general unwilling to sell airtime to NGOs, but I think also that not many NGOs thought of using radio as a medium for advocacy. So it was our organization which pioneered that approach on the part of the NGOs, and now many more NGOs are buying airtime.
So on both sides, the trend is growing. CCHR, for example, now buys airtime on seven different radio stations throughout the country. That could not have been the case in 2003-2004. Even up to 2006-2007, that could not have been the case. Radio airspace is opening up, so in that regard, you can say that there have been positive developments.
Is there a similar situation for print media in Cambodia?
Print media is growing in Cambodia, but it’s growing slowly. Print media is interesting: it’s free to print, except for if you get arrested. What I mean by that is, the government will arrest journalists, but they don’t control the licensing. So there are hundreds of licensed newspapers. But many, in fact most, of these newspapers do not print regularly. Many newspapers will simply run two or four pages worth of print. Others will have front pages that are simply taken up by photos with captions, papers that contain maybe two or three articles. Papers may come out every two months, or even more irregularly, depending on when they have the resources to print.
Journalism as a profession has not been a terribly rewarding one in Cambodia, because of a lack of financing. Journalism in Cambodia is a low-pay, high-risk, crazy-hours job. Because of that, not many people who have other opportunities will go into journalism.
Where were people with these opportunities going?
Generally, in the past, if you were more able and had the connections, you went into NGOS; that was the industry that paid the highest, or used to pay the highest. I’m speaking more specifically about international NGOs, and the UN system, and the Embassies, which paid by far the highest.
The gap between that particular market and the local market is incredible. It’s five-fold. If you look at two drivers with the same qualifications, a driver for an Embassy might make $400-$500 a month, while a driver for a local operation might make $70 a month. That’s a huge gap.
This clearly has an effect on the job market in Cambodia. And this effect touches upon the world of journalism?
No one is really making similar commitments to other fields, particularly with journalism. So journalism as a career is problematic. Publishers will not provide good pay. In many cases, there are truly shoestring budgets.
Right now, newspapers fall into three camps. You have pro-government newspapers, which are both financially assisted and protected by the government, as well as by some of the business interests. Then you have the official opposition party newspapers. And then you have the independent newspaper in the middle, attempting to flourish despite all the problems I’ve just described. Except for the English-language papers, which can be seen as an exception.
Opposition papers will have some financial backing by the opposition to write articles about political campaigns, and to attack the government as much as it can. You previously saw opposition papers calling [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen a ‘one-eyed man, crazy and deranged, born to evil.’ We don’t have that same kind of rhetoric any more, the language has changed. Instead, you’ll see the opposition papers talking about ‘His Excellency Sam Rainsy and that guy, Hun Sen.’ Now, a similar tone is taken by pro-government newspapers. However, those papers are much more able to pay the staff, so you see a different quality in the journalism.
Financing newspapers is tough for the opposition. If you are a pro-government newspaper, you are probably going to get businesses willing to advertise and to appear as sponsors. This is because, from the perspective of a business owner, if you know that government officials are going to be reading this paper, you want to be seen as sponsoring the newspaper. If you are a business tycoon, you will want to be seen as supporting any efforts to strengthen the rule of the government. And so sponsorship of pro-government press, whether it be in newspaper, radio, or TV, is an effective medium for that.
Tell us a bit about the state of the law regarding freedom of expression in Cambodia today.
Looking at the state of the law regarding freedom of expression, you’ll find that the Cambodian Constitution is actually almost perfect in that regard. We also have a recently passed law on demonstrations that needs a few amendments, but it is by no means a draconian law. It’s simply an issue that some of the vague language within the law will be abused.
Actually, the CCHR is reviewing existing law, and we use a color coding system: red, yellow, and green. We’ve ranked the demonstration law as a yellow, simply because the law needs to be further clarified, but it’s not a bad law. The Cambodian Constitution is a green. The criminal code, we’ve ranked as a yellow; the current criminal code is certainly better than the UNTAC [United Nations Transitional Authority on Cambodia, established in 1991] Penal Code. This is because the UNTAC penal code has too few articles, so that most crimes are not actually stated or listed within the code. Today, the new criminal code has somewhere around three to four hundred articles. This provides for a more extensive stating of the law, and for more detail. And that’s what’s needed. That said, some of the articles related to freedom of expression in the Criminal Code need to be amended. It should be no surprise that this is our position: we are freedom of expression advocates. We want to decriminalize “defamation,” even “incitement.” Defamation, at the least, should be decriminalized. This helps explain why we rank the current Criminal Code as a yellow.
Actually, Hun Sen promised to decriminalize disinformation, and because of that, there is actually no disinformation in the current Criminal Code, although it was a criminal offense under the UNTAC penal code. So, technically, “disinformation” has been decriminalized. But, then they introduced “false information” into the new penal code, which functions exactly the same way. So this is an issue that needs to be addressed and appropriately amended.
Now, to go back to media issues, I want to point out that, while there is a Press Law in Cambodia, there’s no Media Law. There is no law governing broadcasting and publications, nothing governing print media and the radio and the Internet and TV. What this means is that the Ministry of Information has free reign in regulating these media outlets, essentially operating as the final decision-maker over the actions of these outlets. The Ministry’s procedures and their decisions are their own; they don’t share these things with the public. So if you are rejected in applying for a broadcasting permit, you are being rejected without being given proper reasons, without a proper citation of existing law. The Ministry of Information has shut down radio stations before, without even due process. And these are not decisions that they publish.
As for the Press Law, however, the law itself is a good one. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily translate into effective implementation; we definitely have a problem with how the Press Law is actually implemented.
And what about laws that affect other civil society groups? NGOs? Labor unions?
The up-and-coming NGO law will be a threat to civil society and to the work of NGOs. Larger NGOs like ours can probably fulfill all the requirements of the law, but not smaller civil society-based NGOs; this will have major, major implications for those groups. The law will also serve as a major threat to freedom of expression; this becomes obvious when one thinks about the NGOs whose work involves speaking out and and providing an organized forum or a microphone to small villages in order to air their concerns.
There’s now a draft law on labor issues, and this draft law will affect the labor unions in many ways. The only thing that can threaten the government’s grip on power is the unions, the garment factor workers. Because the members of these groups number in the tens of thousands, and these groups have demonstrated many times, and they are the only group that ever really takes to the street in large numbers. So controlling these groups, that’s the goal of the government.
One of the themes that seems to be emerging from your critique is the prevalence of a disconnect between the black letter law and its implementation.
The biggest concern is still the lack of proper implementation, the poor application of . . . let’s use the example of laws governing demonstrations. If the law is applied properly, it’s actually not bad. People do have the right to demonstrate under this law, and the requirements are not over-burdensome. The elements of defamation and incitement are still present, but with the proper court, people would know their limits and still be able to express their opinions. There are a lot of other countries that criminalize defamation and that do not have significant repression of freedom of expression.
So, for us, the court system is the biggest problem: it’s an issue of how these laws will be applied, and whether they will be applied across the board for everybody or arbitrarily as a result of political motivations. And the court system in Cambodia is very corrupt. We all know the court system is corrupt. This is not hidden from the international community; in the U.S. embassy’s cables, they say this.
Because of this corruption, the court system will bend over backwards to please the politicians. Politicians can get whatever they want from the court. I mean, even things that make no legal sense: There have been cases where they change the charges in the middle of the case. They change the charges the day they announce the verdict. So the claim that there’s consistency in the legal system today is laughable. The corruption of the court system is ultimately the biggest problem for human rights in the country today. And for democracy as well, because the institutions that are supposed to guarantee a certain process, and to allow for competition and pluralism, are not doing their job.
The next section of HHRJ’s interview with Ou Virak will deal with the Khmer Rouge Tribunals, in Part II available HERE. The complete interview series will be available HERE. For more information on the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, visit their website at http://www.cchrcambodia.org/.