— United Nations officials and other groups are voicing concern about months of heavy-handed security measures against journalists and photographers in Cambodia's capital.
The government has enforced a ban on public assemblies in Phnom Penh since January. For months now, security guards hired by the municipality of Phnom Penh have attacked journalists and photographers covering protests and rallies and damaged or stolen their equipment.
The guards are enforcing the government's January 4 ban on public gatherings, a measure aimed at preventing the political opposition and labor groups from protesting the ruling party. But under Cambodian law, the crackdown against journalists covering the rallies is illegal.
On Friday, security guards, backed by police, used sticks and batons against members of the news media covering a gathering by opposition activists that was banned by the government. A Cambodian reporter was injured in the attack.
The head of the U.N. rights office in Cambodia, Wan Hea Lee, condemned the violence on Saturday. She said the government has an obligation to investigate the attacks its personnel have made on the media in recent months and prosecute those responsible.
She said any attack on the media has broad consequences for democracy in Cambodia.
“[It] affects the ability of the entire society to obtain the information it needs in order to keep alive the notion of democracy and participation, the inclusive society that Cambodia aspires to become. Impunity does not take place in a vacuum - impunity, in cases of attacks against journalists, occurs in a situation where impunity is possible, period,” said Wan Hea Lee.
On Sunday, the Ministry of Information
released a statement in which it effectively admitted that matters had gone too far.
The ministry statement condemned “all forms of threatening, intimidation, seizing of material and insulting of journalists," and said it considers these actions as "serious violations of Cambodia’s press freedom.”
The ministry called on state security agents to respect the right of journalists to carry out their job. However it made no mention of prosecuting those who have inflicted violence in the past.
Sebastian Strangio, vice-president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, which represents foreign journalists and photographers as well as some Cambodians, welcomed the government statement, but questioned its effectiveness at stemming future acts of violence.
“Well, we welcome the statement. We welcome the condemnation of these attacks on journalists. The question now is whether this order is going to filter down to the district level authorities, who are thought to be behind a lot of these attacks. That remains to be seen,” said Strangio.
The actions come at a time of heightened political tension in Cambodia. The country's political opposition has refused to take its seats in parliament in protest of a general election last July that it claims was marred by fraud but that official results indicated the ruling party won by a narrow margin.
Although the two parties came close to a deal last month that would have resolved their differences, that now appears to have collapsed.
Campaigning has begun for a May 18 ballot in which local councilors will vote to appoint the members of two tiers of higher-level councils.