Cablegate: Bucking a Disturbing Trend in Southeast Asia:

DE RUEHPF #0682/01 1370321
P 170321Z MAY 07





E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/20/2017

Classified By: Ambassador Joseph A. Mussomeli for reasons 1.4 (b) and (

1. (SBU) Summary. According to a 2006 study by Freedom
House, Cambodia stands alone among mainland Southeast Asian
countries as having improved its commitment to freedom of the
press. At Embassy urging, Cambodia removed all prison terms
for criminal defamation -- a weapon of choice in this part of
the world to quash dissent. The print media has become more
open over the last year, and the government has also begun to
relax its stranglehold on electronic media, allowing
unprecendented criticism of its policies. One of the
government's primary motivations for relaxing its grip on the
media is a desire to markedly improve its relationship with
the United States. We are using our assistance programs to
better train journalists, fund a cutting edge TV show that
discusses real and often sensitive political issues, and
improve the coverage area of independent radio stations.
These positive trends, however, are tenuous and much more
needs to be done to ensure true press freedom. The
Ambassador recommends Cambodia as a possible stop for
high-level visits to preserve these successes and underscore
USG commitment for promoting further liberalization of the
media. End Summary.

Cambodia's Progress Noted by Freedom House

2. (U) On May 3, Cambodia observed UN World Press Freedom
Day by noting a recent victory -- Freedom House, an
international NGO supporting the expansion of freedom in the
world -- moved Cambodia from the "Not Free" category to
"Partly Free" in its annual survey "Freedom of the Press
2007" and hailed Cambodia as one of the only countries in
Southeast Asia to make significant inroads in media
liberalization. According to Freedom House, the region as a
whole experienced a decline of press freedom due to coups and
military intervention in Thailand and Fiji; political and
civil conflicts in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and East
Timor; and continued suppression of media in Malaysia. Laos,
Vietnam, and, in particular, Burma, continue to be known for
their restrictive media environments. Worldwide, Freedom
House viewed 2006 as a bad year for media independence.
Cambodia, the youngest member of ASEAN and one of the poorest
countries in Asia, shows some of the few, positive
developments in press freedom.

3. (U) Cambodia today is generally seen as a friendlier
place for the media and for reporting on dissenting opinions.
According to official figures, Cambodia now boasts 296
national newpapers, 90 magazines, 30 bulletins, 15 journalist
associations, 41 foreign media institutions, 9 foreign
newspapers imported for local sale, 22 radio stations, and 7
television stations. As the explosion in the number of print
media indicates, the government regularly issues licenses for
new newspapers and other publications regardless of political
affiliation or slant. While reporter intimidation exists,
over the past year journalists have been allowed to
criticize, sometimes harshly, the government and its
policies. For example, a prominent human rights NGO and an
opposition MP recently called for the abolition of the
Ministry of Information, which is widely seen as merely
serving the propaganda interests of the ruling CPP and as
stifling dissent through the habitual denial of broadcast
licenses to opposition groups. Despite the intensity of the
criticism, the story received extensive coverage in the Khmer

4. (U) While Reporters Without Borders indicated that in
2006, 81 journalists were killed worldwide, at least 871 were
arrested, 1,472 physically attacked or threatened, and 56
kidnapped; Cambodia saw no politically-motivated killings,
attacks, arrests or kidnappings of journalists and only one
reported threat of physical violence during that same period.
There have been no known politically-motivated killings of
journalists since the October 2003 death of Chour Chetharith,
a radio announcer for the FUNCINPEC station, Taprohm.

5. (S) The USG deserves some credit for helping to foster
this improved media climate by vigorously promoting press
freedom as a core component of its diplomacy and assistance
programs in Cambodia. On World Press Freedom Day, the
Ambassador, speaking to a gathering of more than 100
journalists in Phnom Penh, commended the RGC for removing
jail time as a penalty for defamation -- an action that the
RGC took after the public and private urging of the
Ambassador, and despite resistance to the idea from the
Japanese and the French. USG programs supporting press

PHNOM PENH 00000682 002 OF 002

freedom in Cambodia include a series of USAID-funded
workshops, supplemented by an IIP Strategic Speaker (Pulitzer
Prize winning journalist Jerry Kammer), to train a cadre of
Khmer journalists in investigative reporting techniques. The
respected NGO Internews, through a USD 200,000 grant from the
Department, will soon start training 100 Cambodia journalists
on covering the proceedings of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and
the Cambodian judiciary in general. The Public Affairs
Section regularly provides resource materials for journalists
such as the Khmer-language version of the publication "The
Elements of Journalism," and the Mission sends Cambodian
journalists to the United States to meet with their
counterparts and observe journalistic practices through
Department exchange programs. Recently, the Mission also
awarded a USD 10,000 grant to the Cambodian Club of
Journalists to conduct a competition to recognize outstanding
achievement in Cambodian investigative journalism.

Media Environment Still Changing

6. (SBU) Despite impressive gains, Cambodia's press freedoms
are still fragile. While defamation is no longer punishable
with jail time, it is still considered a criminal offense
worthy of fines of up to 10 million riels (approximately USD
2,500). Additionally, many RGC officials have taken to
threatening journalists with legal action under Cambodia's
"disinformation" law, which punishes the publication of
information that is "false, fabricated, falsified or
untruthfully attributed to a third person" with up to 3 years
in jail and fines of up to 3 million riels (approximately USD
750). While no one has yet been convicted of disinformation,
the Mission is aware of two cases currently under
consideration by the courts. Despite the large numbers of
media outlets, most are closely aligned with the CPP,
particularly the broadcast media, and were used with great
effect by the CPP to promote its candidates during the recent
commune council elections. Non-CPP candidates had to buy
airtime on the state-owned television network with Australian
funding. And while journalists feel increasingly comfortable
criticizing the government, most privately admit to Mission
personnel they practice some form of self-censorship due to
residual fear from past crackdowns on going too far down the
path of free expression.

Using USG Clout to Advance Media Freedom

7. (S) Past USG success in advancing press freedom in
Cambodia makes a forceful argument for futher USG engagement
on this issue. As noted above, the change in Cambodia's
defamation law was a direct result of pressure brought to
bear by this Embassy. And some high-level officials,
including the former Minister of Labor, have been removed
from office in the wake of corruption scandals exposed by
participants in the USAID-funded investigative journalism
training program. Clearly media liberalization is an area in
which the USG can have a positive influence in Cambodia, and
we should be seen to press for greater gains in media freedom.

8. (C) One way to focus the government's attention in this
regard would be high-level visits from Washington. The MFA
regularly raises the prospect of such visits, and the
Cambodian government would welcome the opportunity to
showcase the progress Cambodia has achieved on many fronts,
from peaceful and orderly local elections in April, to its
excellent counter-terrorism cooperation, to its decision to
be more supportive of our policies toward Burma. We have
continued to press the RGC to liberalize their near-monopoly
on electronic media licenses, decriminalize other remaining
UNTAC-era laws that have been used against government critics
and political opponents, and permit peaceful demonstrations
under Cambodia's constitution. A high-level visit in 2007 --
particularly coming just before the 2008 national elections
-- would send a strong message of tolerance and respect for
freedom of speech and be viewed positively by all Cambodians.

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