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Country Backgrounder

Cambodia: a hostile environment for rights defenders

Protesters are detained by district authorities as they demonstrate in support of land rights activist Tep Vanny during her verdict in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 23 February 2017
Protesters are detained by district authorities as they demonstrate in support of land rights activist Tep Vanny during her verdict in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 23 February 2017

REUTERS/Samrang Pring

It has become increasingly apparent that Prime Minister Hun Sun has no intention of allowing free media to continue operating inside the country ahead of the 2018 elections. The government has instead seized on every opportunity to go after critics, political opponents, NGOs, and independent media committed to reporting the truth.
Libby Liu, President of Radio Free Asia


In the lead up to the July 2018 general election, the Cambodian government became increasingly hostile to dissent. Opposition parties and independent media suffered under a harsh crackdown. Newspapers and broadcasters were forced to close, rights activists were imprisoned and police wielded violence to disperse demonstrations.


Phnom Penh


15.76 mi


US$ 20.017 bni


Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, headed by King Norodom Sihamoni who has held the throne since 2004, seceding from his father, King Norodom Sihanouk. While officially a multi-party democracy, Hun Sen, leader of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and a former member of the Khmer Rouge, is one of the world's longest serving prime ministers, having held the post under various coalitions since 1985. His re-election in 2013 to a five year term was marred by allegations of election fraud. On 29 July 2018, Hun Sen was re-elected prime minister in what the government said was a landslide victory, but which in reality bore few of the hallmarks of a free and fair election.

Member of:

Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), United Nations

IFEX members working in the country:

Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) |
Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) |

Press freedom ranking:

Reporters Sans Frontières World Press Freedom Index 2018 132 out of 180 countries

Past elections shadowed by threats

Local elections took place in June 2017 in an environment described by Human Rights Watch as 'threatening' and 'hostile to free speech and genuine political participation', a threat exacerbated by Prime Minister Hun Sen's chilling statement that to ensure a win for his CPP, he was willing to 'eliminate 100 to 200 people'. This was no idle threat. Twenty years earlier, in July 1997, dozens were killed when forces loyal to the CPP ousted Hun Sen's then co-premier, Norodom Ranariddh - leader of the royalist FUNCINPEC party.

The 17 June elections were, ultimately, peaceful. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gained 46% of the vote to the CPP's 51%, a significant gain for the opposition compared with previous years. Nevertheless the elections were held under a cloud of threats, specifically against civil society groups that challenged the government. This included from an interior ministry spokesman who threatened repercussions after the elections if NGOs persisted in their opposition.

A year later, that threat became concrete with the 3 September 2017 arrest of Kem Sokha, the CRNP leader, on accusation of 'treason' for colluding with the USA, an escalation of hostile actions both against the opposition and of the Prime Minister's antagonism towards the USA.

Press crackdown ahead of the general election

Just before the June 2017 local elections, the Ministry of Interior put in place guidelines for media coverage that included bans on news that affected 'public order' or cause 'fear of violence', among others. The Committee to Protect Journalists described the edict as 'intrusive, vague and threatening'. Similar restraints on the media were put in place ahead of the July 2018 general election, including a ministerial order issued in June 2018, which imposes draconian restrictions on social media users. The order prohibits the sharing of content that the government vaguely defines as causing 'incitement' and 'undermining social solidarity'.

Despite the CPP's victory in the 2017 polls, pressure on the press hardened. Between August and September 2017 at least 30 media outlets were shut down or taken off air. Among them was the English-language Cambodia Daily, which was forced to shut down on 3 September 2017 after being ordered to pay US$ 6.3 million in years of back taxes, an 'astronomical' figure disputed by the paper. Although with only a small circulation, the newspaper was admired for its coverage of sensitive issues such as corruption and land rights. Then, on 12 September, the US-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) was forced to suspend operations in Cambodia under what it described as a 'relentless crackdown on independent voices'. Radio stations that broadcast RFA and Voice of America content were also taken off air, accused of 'overselling' the two US funded broadcasters, among other alleged breaches of licensing regulations. The government disputed that the closures were politically motivated, a claim belied by Information Minister Khieu Kanharith describing the director of one of the closed stations, Voice of Democracy, as a 'traitor' for accepting foreign donations. Press freedom took a further hit in May 2018, when Cambodia's last independent newspaper, The Phnom Penh Post, was sold under murky circumstances. Soon after the sale was completed, the new owner began to censor content and attack the newspaper's journalists in print; 13 staff were forced to resign and the editor-in-chief was fired. In the days leading up to the July 2018 general election, the authorities blocked 17 major online news outlets, including Cambodian Center for Independent Media's Voice of Democracy (VOD), Voice of America (VOA Khmer service), Radio Free Asia (RFA Khmer service) and the Phnom Penh Post newspaper.

On 25 July 2018, IFEX issued a public statement condemning Cambodia's pre-election crackdown on independent voices which "deprived the election of all credibility". The statement called for "the full restoration of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country”.

Tep Vanny during a protest near the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh, 7 November 2012
Tep Vanny during a protest near the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh, 7 November 2012

REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Rights activists imprisoned and attacked

In 2015 a new NGO law came into force that enacted more stringent registration and reporting demands, described as a 'thinly veiled attempt to curtail [NGOs'] freedom'. Prime Minister Hun Sen's comment at the time that any NGO breaching the new regulations would be 'handcuffed' was far from reassuring for already beleaguered civil society groups.

Among them are rights activists who have been fighting to hold onto land claimed by developers who risk local livelihoods and the environment. In 2012, 13 women were sentenced to prison terms for demonstrations against developments on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Tep Vanny is one. She is serving a two and a half year sentence for organising protests for the release of her fellow rights activist, Yorm Bopha, in 2013. Arrested on several occasions between 2012 and her latest incarceration in 2017, (her conviction was upheld in February 2018), she had also been briefly imprisoned for her support for five members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) arrested in April 2016 and held without trial until their release on bail in June 2017. Accused of bribery, their 'crime' was to provide advice to a woman linked to an investigation into allegations that a member of the opposition CNRP had been having an illicit affair, a claim widely seen as an attempt to undermine the party. In November 2016, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions ruled that the five were imprisoned arbitrarily and that they were detained for giving 'legitimate advice'.

The ADHOC arrests sparked demonstrations in May 2016 dubbed the 'Black Monday' campaign. This saw a series of protests and events to support the prisoners, which were met with heavy handed policing and scores of arrests. One of those arrested was Tep Vanny, who was held for six days in August 2016 for her part, and continues to be held in detention for her participation in another protest years prior. The Black Monday protests continue.

The environment for human rights defenders remains hostile. By mid-September 2017, tensions had risen further as rhetoric against organisations with American links grew, leading the US embassy in Phnom Penh to issue a security warning to its citizens.

In November 2017, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the Ministry of Interior to investigate - and potentially shut down - local IFEX member the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) over allegations questioning the organisation's neutrality. The Ministry eventually dropped the investigation due to a lack of evidence of any wrongdoing.

A frightening farce of a trial - the case of Kem Ley

In the midst of these events lies the murder of Kem Ley, a political commentator and activist known for his strong criticisms of the CPP was shot dead on 10 July 2016 at a service station cafe where he often met with people to give interviews. Rather than bringing reassurance that justice had been served, the sentencing of a man to life imprisonment in March 2017, sparked suspicions that this was a political assassination ordered at the highest levels. Speculation was such that Prime Minister Hun Sen took legal action against exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy for suggesting that his government was behind the killing. Just days before his death Kem Ley had given an interview about a Global Witness report, Hostile Takeover, on the huge personal wealth that Hun Sen had accumulated over his years in power.

The trial itself was riddled with inconsistencies. While the defendant, Oueth Ang, admitted the killing, his testimony was apparently riddled with gaps. His claim to be an orphan was undermined by the presence of his mother as a witness, as was his claim to be a forest worker after it was shown that he previously served as a former soldier. Individuals he referred to as having links to the crime were not called to court. Seven of the ten witnesses were police officers, and so on. The International Commission of Jurists' observer reported in the New York Times that the trial was missing 'proper establishment of the truth' adding that, 'What happened was that the accused provided a version of events which were totally improbable, and they weren't explored in any meaningful way.' Outrage was such that in July 2017, a joint statement signed by 164 NGOs in Cambodia and abroad called on the Cambodian government to open an independent Commission of Inquiry that would address the flaws in the trial and disclose the truth behind Kem Ley's murder.

The lack of justice for previous murders does not bode well for Kem Ley. The disappearance of 16-year-old Khem Saphath during police repression of a garment workers' strike in 2014 remains unsolved, as do the killings of six others during unrest between 2013 and 2014. A documentary on the murder of environmentalist Chut Wutty in 2012 was banned from Cambodia in 2016, although more than 100,000 people are estimated to have viewed it at secret screenings across the country. In a case with a striking resemblance to that of Kem Ley, two men accused and imprisoned for the 2004 murder of trade union activist, Chea Vichea, were released in 2013 due to lack of evidence. Their trial had been deeply flawed and it is widely thought that they had been used as scapegoats to distract attention from the real killers, who remain unpunished.

Dr. Kem Ley's Funeral procession to his hometown in Takeo Province, Cambodia, 24 July 2016, two weeks after his assassination on 10 July
Dr. Kem Ley's Funeral procession to his hometown in Takeo Province, Cambodia, 24 July 2016, two weeks after his assassination on 10 July

By Pisethinfo, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

More Resources & Information

Kem Ley: Breaking down the façade of justice

International IFEX 20 September 2017

On 10 July 2016, popular Cambodian activist and political commentator Kem Ley was gunned down, just two days after publicly criticizing the Hun Sen family for abusing its power to accumulate vast personal wealth. Although the gunman has been sentenced to life in prison many questions remain, including one glaring one: who ordered the killing of Kem Ley?

Cambodia: Events of 2016

Asia & Pacific Human Rights Watch (HRW) 31 December 2016

Human Rights Watch's annual review of the human rights situation in Cambodia, featuring the killing of Kem Ley.

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