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The Alliance for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia (AFEC) is leading a 314-kilometre march for freedom of expression, non-violence and political tolerance in Cambodia ahead of commune council elections that start next week, reports the Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA).

The 16-day march, from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, is being held so that citizens can express their demands before the council elections start on 16 March, historically a time of heightened political violence. These elections precede next year's national general election.

"The march is one of the things that people can use to express their opinions? We want to show how freedom of expression is needed for other rights," AFEC general secretary Ou Virak told SEAPA, adding that opinions from people en route will be collected and conveyed to the government.

Two hundred people nominated by AFEC, a coalition of 28 NGOs and labour unions, started the march, while members of the public have joined along the way. Ox-carts carried banners bearing the march's message and participants wore yellow ribbons to symbolise their demand for free expression. Each day features a specific topic around the march theme, such as the protection of women on International Women's Day.

Last year, at the time of a similar march led by AFEC, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen promised to decriminalise defamation laws. Although prison terms are not given in defamation cases, defamation is still considered a criminal offence. The government is also turning to other means, such as criminal disinformation and incitement laws, to silence critics of corruption, land grabbing and illegal evictions, reported AFEC.

SEAPA says freedom of expression in Cambodia remains limited despite constitutional guarantees. Most local media, with the exception of a few radio stations, are controlled and restricted by the government. The low literacy rate also restricts access to traditional and new media.

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