He’s back. After four years in self-imposed exile, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy landed in Phnom Penh last Friday to throngs of flag-waving fans wearing white caps branded with a rising sun—the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s telltale logo. Rainsy came for the showdown: this Sunday, the CNRP will face ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party in parliamentary elections. The CPP is widely expected to win; Hun Sen has held power for 28 years. But Rainsy made history in his return. There was no bigger news that day.

Yet hardly a peep was heard, hardly a picture seen or story told, in the Khmer-language press, which largely ignored Rainsy and the crowd of 100,000 that greeted him. That silence typifies the Cambodian press, and is part and parcel of a campaign marred by allegations of voter registration fraud and threats to freedom of expression.

At quick glance, Cambodia appears democratic, having regular elections and media freedom with about 20 Khmer-language papers, two English dailies, 12 TV stations, and roughly 100 radio stations. But several papers, all the TV stations, and almost all radio are CPP-controlled, influenced, or aligned, according to the US State Department.

Last month, the government enacted a short-lived ban on the rebroadcasting of all foreign programs—including Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and others—to squelch outside reporting on the election, until the United States and other critics condemned the ban as affront to freedom of the press.

This weekend’s vote presents an apt chance to assess the country’s freedom of expression. Some predict a possible “Cambodian Spring” sparked by uppity youngsters taking to the streets, voicing demands for change. But others say: not anytime soon.

This year marks 20 since the United Nations brought the country its first democratic national elections through the most ambitious peacekeeping operation of its time. That vote, in May 1993, came on the heels of a 10-year Vietnamese occupation preceded by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Cambodia was a political and humanitarian mess amid civil war (the last Khmer Rouge leaders didn’t abandon their jungle posts until 1998). “There was physical and psychological devastation. The country had no basic infrastructure and little in the way of healthcare, education or industry. Most Cambodians struggled for daily needs,” according to Human Rights Watch.

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia promised democracy, and Cambodians flocked to the polls with hope. The people voted out Hun Sen (a one-time Khmer Rouge commander) and voted in Prince Norodom Ranariddh. But Hun Sen threatened to retaliate. In the end, the two formed a coalition that lasted until Hun Sen ousted Ranariddh in a 1997 coup.

Today, Cambodia is a strikingly different place. Phnom Penh has skyscrapers, and paved roads connect the country. Peace and political stability are the norm, and Hun Sen allies attribute that to the CPP. But stability does not equal free speech.

Cambodia is a “free-speech nation, but you must be careful all the time,” Kay Kimsong, editor of the Phnom Penh Post Khmer, wrote in in email this week. “You can speak, you can write,” so long as your words steer clear of the government or individual officials.

Authorities suppress dissent through extreme measures that “instill fear in the population and create a climate of self-censorship,” according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “Activists, NGOs, journalists, bloggers and opposition parliamentarians are routinely targeted.”

The country dropped 26 places this year in the annual Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, due to increased “authoritarianism and censorship.” Ironically, journalists are “incredibly free” in Cambodia, according to David Welsh of the Solidarity Center, a labor rights organization. “But that’s only true of the English-language press,” which quotes him a few times each week. “It looks good in Washington,” he said, but “only the expat community and maybe a couple thousand Cambodians read that.” Fostering an appearance of freedom is a clever governmental tactic. “The Khmer press is quite different,” he said. “There are two different worlds.”

Activists suspect online media, which is “blossoming with a burgeoning number of ‘cloggers’ (Cambodian bloggers),” will face the next round of government regulation, according to CCHR. In May 2012, the government announced plans for a cyber law to prevent “ill-willed” or “bad mood people from spreading false information,” the Phnom Penh Post reports.

As it is, bloggers frequently self-censor, according to CCHR. Despite national law, which guarantees freedom of expression, online writers see the treatment of other journalists and activists and consequently avoid sensitive issues. “As a result, politics or related topics have become taboo.”

Or dangerous. Human rights campaigners face “harassment, intimidation, death threats and even killings,” Amnesty International and four international rights organizations wrote in a statement this week.

“Oh yeah, I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” Long Kimheang, senior communications officer for the Housing Rights Task Force, said earlier this year. She was recording protesters and police on Human Rights Day last December when an officer pointed directly at her and said, “Don’t take video of us.” Several days later, she said, she was mugged. “A big man grabbed my bag. And everything was gone: my camera, my passport, my video, my money,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s an accident.”

Oppressive regimes breed and grow in an atmosphere of fear, both real and perceived. And it often leads to silence.

“The freedom to speak… it’s not strong,” radio journalist Mam Sonando said just days after his release from prison in March. He’d spent eight months of a 20-year sentence locked up on insurrection charges that were eventually overturned. “I was thinking I might actually die in prison,” the 72-year-old said. “But I said so be it. I would die with honor.”

Other Cambodians go about their business quietly. They whisper in cafés, scanning the room for other watchful eyes. Cambodians who want jobs don’t speak ill of the CPP, a taxi driver said recently. He struggles to support aging parents and several siblings in school. He takes no chances with his words. Hun Sen, he said, is “like a rock,” and he is “like an egg.”

He continued, “Be careful. Because now my government is not so happy with the people like you.” It’s a risky enterprise in Cambodia today: taking pictures, taking notes, “talking to the people.”

Homepage photo by Jerry Redfern

 

Karen Coates , author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War, is a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her next book, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, co-authored with photojournalist Jerry Redfern, is due out this fall.