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Cambodia: Murder of Journalist Jolts Run-Up to Election

Son Also Killed in Attack Amid Intense Ruling Party Pressure on Opposition

(New York) - With less than two weeks before Cambodia’s National Assembly elections on July 27, the political climate has sharply deteriorated, highlighted by the killing of opposition journalist Khim Sambo and his son in a drive-by shooting on July 11 in Phnom Penh, Human Rights Watch said today.

At 6:30 p.m. on July 11, Sambo, 47, and his son, Khat Sarinpheata, 21, were fired upon numerous times by a man riding on the back of a motorcycle near Olympic Stadium in central Phnom Penh, where Sambo and his son had been exercising. Sambo died at the scene. His son died the following day in hospital.

“As in previous pre-election periods, this killing appears to be intended to send a message not to engage in opposition politics,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Sambo had been a reporter for more than 10 years for Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience), a newspaper affiliated with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). It is one of the few newspapers in Cambodia that is not dominated by the government or the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen, which also controls most television and radio stations. Sambo was known for his hard-hitting articles about government corruption, political affairs, and land grabbing.

“The Cambodian authorities should surprise everyone for once and hold accountable those responsible for Khim Sambo’s murder, no matter their political allegiance,” said Adams. “Sadly, there is every reason to fear that Khim Sambo will be yet another opposition journalist whose killing will not be solved.”

Just a month before his murder, military police arrested Moneaksekar Khmer editor, Dam Sith, who is also running as a SRP candidate in the elections, after the paper reported on allegations about the current foreign minister’s role during the Khmer Rouge regime. Although Sith was released after several days in detention and the foreign minister dropped his lawsuit against the editor, criminal charges of defamation and disinformation are still pending against Sith under articles 62 and 63 of Cambodia’s penal code.

The buildup to the July elections has been marked by intense and systematic efforts by the CPP to pressure opposition party members, particularly those from the SRP, to defect to the CPP. Lucrative offers of high-paying government positions or threats and reprisals against those who refuse have resulted in hundreds of opposition party members defecting to the CPP during this campaign.

One of those suffering reprisals as a result of the defection campaign is Tuot Saron, a local SRP leader in Kampong Thom province, who remains in detention almost four months after her arrest.

In violation of election rules, the 11 political parties competing in the election do not have equal access to the media, especially radio and television. Most of the electronic media outlets in Cambodia have focused their election coverage almost exclusively on positive portrayals of the CPP or one-sided attacks on the opposition. On July 10, the National Election Commission (NEC) issued a warning to 13 television and radio stations for broadcasting biased coverage of the elections. Ten of those stations are dominated by pro-CPP coverage, according to the NEC.

Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodia authorities to promptly implement other critically needed reforms in advance of the elections. These include to:

  • Remove pending criminal charges against Dam Sith;
  • Reissue the license and reopen Angkor Ratha (FM 105.25) radio in Kratie province, which was shut down by the government in May 2008 after it sold air time to opposition parties;
  • Release SRP member Tuot Saron in Kompong Thom;
  • Stop the unprecedented pressure by the CPP to coerce opposition party officials to defect to the CPP before the elections; and
  • Ensure fair and equal access to electronic media.

“Elections in Cambodia are always fraught with violence and intimidation,” said Adams. “While political violence is considerably less than in past elections, the fact that an opposition journalist has been gunned down on a busy city street has sent shock waves through the community of media workers, opposition party supporters, and the voting population in general.”

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