By Sean Sydney Johnson



A history of political instability, a shaky foundation of freedoms, and a youthful establishment are the detrimental characteristics of the 62-year-old country of Cambodia. With a dismal ranking of 144th out of the 180 analyzed countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2014 World Press Freedom Index, Cambodia’s placement has supported their historical tendency to restrict sovereignties. Initially ranked 117th in 2012, the country has declined in improvements, as three journalists have been murdered within the last three years, and has in turn become increasingly restrictive (Handbook of Asian Criminology, p. 167) (Reporters without Borders Freedom Index).

Historical Background

The political history of the last four decades includes civil wars, mass genocides, and international, as well as national, aggression. This parcel bordered by Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, initially known as Khmer Land, was dually controlled by Vietnam and Thailand until it became a French Protectorate in 1863. Only recently did the inhabitants gain independence of what is presently known as Cambodia. Norodom Sihanouk led as the King, and the Prime Minister, in a constitutional monarchy from 1954 until he was exiled by a coup orchestrated by General Lon Nol in 1970. Numerous political groups emerged after Cambodia’s declaration as a republic in 1970, which stimulated a civil war. Amongst the groups was the dominant, Nol-regime-opposed Khmer Rouges, led by Pol Pot. The KR further established their power when they defeated the republican army in 1975 and initiated, with Chinese military support, a utopia regime that would historically become one of the most violent displays of political authoritarianism induced by revolutionary terror. By seizing the land, food, and assets of the citizens, the KR killed 1.7 million, nearly one quarter, of the Cambodian population until the Vietnamese military intervened and ceased this massacre in 1979. Vietnam forcefully ingrained a socialist system called the People’s Republic of Kampuchea which ignited a civil war and continuing the pre-existing violence. The PRK, later renamed State of Cambodia, was backed by Vietnam and Soviet Union military forces in a civil war with KR and royalist forces, who gained military support by China and political support by the United States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and numerous western countries. The warfare sustained until the United Nations intervened which resulted in a peaceful agreement deemed the Paris Accords and created the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. UNTAC undermined Cambodia’s current constitutional monarchy and led to the country’s first free elections. Although the royalist party, FUNCIPEC, took the majority vote, Cambodian government officials attempted to preserve peace by forcing an unsteady alliance with a dual-prime minister setting with the Cambodian People Party. Led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the CPP reinstated conflict in 1997 causing a large amount of casualties as well as the end of the royalist capability. Cambodia’s second elections in 1998 restored the combined government, but FUNCIPEC was weakened then ultimately diminished when their former leader, Pol Pot, died. The CPP has reigned since 1998 and Hun Sen has gradually increased his power of the country (Handbook of Asian Criminology, pp. 167-168). The predominantly youthful population, with 60 percent of all 13.4 million Cambodians characterized under the age of 25, as well as the general newness of the country, could be the inherent cause of Cambodia’s negative tendencies. Human trafficking and poverty remain prevalent amongst other forms of restricted speech placing Cambodia in the lower 20 percent of the freedom index (Handbook of Asian Criminology, p. 167) (Reporters without Borders Freedom Index).


Free Speech

Although Article 41 of the Constitution of Cambodia ensures the freedom of expression, press, publication, and assembly, their tempestuous history has displayed otherwise (Constitution Society). Amidst the instability caused by the recent characterization as an independent nation resulting in a politically fueled national war, the KR initiated a peasant-led revolt against King Sihanouk in 1964. Inadvertently, the revolt caused the overthrow of the king, but the opposing group led by Lon Nol orchestrated the coup. Consequently, the king and the KR joined forces in a combat against Nol’s tyrannical military system. The KR succeeded in their overthrow of one repressive regime only to enact their own. This regime, also referred to as the Cambodian Genocide, was composed as an attempt for national ‘cleansing’ of imperfect racial, socioeconomic, and political communities. Every inhabitable city was forcibly migrated to rural areas, where the KR would exterminate anyone the considered to be class enemies. The necessary requirements which qualified Cambodians as an enemy demonstrate the early stages of impeded speech. Government officials informed the masses that those who spoke any language other than Khmer, those who received a form of higher education, and those who were unwilling to accept the cease of nationalities, money, markets, and private property were subject to torture, starvation, and denied medical care (Encyclopedia of Human Rights Issues Since 1945). Linguistic restriction, incapacitating the display of advanced academics, property seizure, policing thought, and denial of food and medicine is the most heinous constraint of symbolic speech inherently given to all citizens. Internationally, few in the United States, as well as many other distant countries, were aware of the poor state of this troubled nation due to the recent withdrawal from the Vietnam War and the reluctance to further participate in eastern feuds (Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, p. x).

Restrictions on expression became increasingly apparent when transportation, religion, wearing make-up, extramarital sex, and prostitution were punishable by death by civilians and military participants (Modern Anthropology of Southeast Asia: Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia). This demonstration of aggregate terror would transcend into post-constitution political principles.

In 1998, Formosa Plastic Group based out of Taiwan poured waste consumed with mercury in a rural Cambodian community. Several villagers fell ill and there was at least one reported death. Extensive corruption allegations increased when the government failed to investigate the problem. The local villagers sought, and received political permission to legally protest but despite their awareness, the government transformed the peaceful protest to a violent one. Two human rights defenders from LICADHO were arrested as a result, sadly depicting yet another breach on the freedom of expression constitutionally promised, but not enforced. Only after the incessant campaign caught international media attention, from BBC and The New York Times, did the police take action and arrest the corrupt administrative officials who allowed the toxic import. This case of environmental damaging illustrates corruption and violation of human rights, including the right to express grievances (Encyclopedia of Human Rights Issues Since 1945). Just as the course of time has proven, Cambodians would not be silenced by governmental suppression efforts.

Despite the two elections that followed the Formosa Plastic event, Hun Sen continued to reign, initially gaining office in 1998, and congruently continued his oppressive violence as well as his extravagant policies (Handbook of Asian criminology). Unfair wages and infringement on workers’ rights cultivated a protest in the capital of Phnom Penh January 3, 2104. A response from Sen was not expected, due to months of unresponsiveness in regards to public dissent, but he gestured a more aggressive stance towards his critics when the protest turned deadly. Four protestors were murdered and at least 20 others were injured by assault rifles or steel wires. Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, and Mu Sochua are opposing politicians and have worked relentlessly to counter Sen’s reign of terror. Due to their involvement with the protest, the police sought Rainsy and Sokha for questioning, but the two went into hiding (The New York Times).

Only a few months later would Sen’s intolerance for human liberties surface, once more, with the arrests of ten women and a Buddhist monk at related protests in November. Seven women’s rights defenders pulled a bed frame into a street near City Hall to protest the forced eviction, and overpopulation within their Phnom Penh Boeng Kak community. They were convicted of obstructing traffic under an undetermined traffic law. The other three women and the monk, conducted a peaceful protest outside of the city courthouse, during the women’s’ trials, demanding their discharge. The following day the group was falsely charged with “obstructing a public official”. Numerous advocacy groups, particularly Amnesty International, have commanded the release of the petitioners due to the violation of their right to peacefully assemble as a form of free speech (Amnesty International).

In opposition to his typically strict legislation suppressing speech, Sen has been lenient on cyber speech. But, due to the increasing prevalence of internet access, Sen and his administration have drafted a cybercrime law that contains critical threats to freedoms. The draft has gained scrutiny because not only was it created behind closed doors, free from public dissent, but it also outlines a vast amount of vague sanctions that are punishable by law. Statements “that are deemed damaging to the moral and cultural values of the society” or “undermine the integrity of any governmental agencies” are amongst the illegal actions. The law has enraged Cambodians as well as the London human rights organization, ARTICLE 19. The organization fears that this law is yet another attempt to suppress political, if not all, expression and is concerned that this outlet used for sharing information and insight positive changes will fall under government control. The Cambodian People Party stressed the enacting of this law as a response to the impact social media has inflicted on elections. Cyber discourse of dissent caused the CPP to win the most recent election by a narrow margin. Prohibiting Cambodian criticism from participation in their political marketplace of ideas, both online and offline, has appeared as an underlying theme of Cambodian speech restriction (Electronic Frontier Foundation).

Free Press

Previous reports from the year before indicated an improvement in Cambodia’s press freedom, but according to Reporters without Borders the arrests of a group of journalists in 2002 cultivated signs of near-stagnant progress. The Reporters without Borders Annual Report on Cambodia highlighted the penalties paired with media discourse on government scrutiny with their coverage of the detainment of three opposition journalists. When asked for the reasoning behind their imprisonment, the police explained that they had been placed on a list of political terrorists. The three journalists, as well as 40 others, were detained without a warrants, nor evidence, and charged with “terrorism and involvement in an illegal armed group” (Reporter without Borders Annual Report Cambodia 2002).


The following year, the 2003 elections would not only demonstrate the CPP’s tyrant prohibition of freedom of speech, but also freedom of the press when opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, was restricted from access to radio and television after repeated attempts. Many believe corruption in Cambodia is a substantial problem (Freedom in the World 2005: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties).

Within the same year, undetermined aggressors were the cause of the murder of an editor responsible for conducting broadcasts with a pro-FUNCIPEC agenda. This event was perceived as an attempt to scare the media into reporting favorable news, but it only incited further government scrutiny within the press(Freedom in the World 2005: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties).

CPP’s powerful reign over the press has become increasingly restrictive in Cambodia and this was supported by the conviction of British journalist Rupert Winchester. The Phnom Penh-based journalist and blogger was found guilty of defamation charges. Winchester emphasized the need to protect Cambodia’s cultural architecture in an article posted on his blog titled “The Mighty Penh”. A property development company by the name of CityStar, and their plan to sell, then demolish a villa that was constructed within the colonial era, was the topic of Winchester’s scrutiny. Despite the fact the story contained French Director of CityStar’s Asia Division Etienne Chenevier’s denial of any plan to destroy the villa, she brought a libel suit against him. Phnom Penh court officials fined Winchester $2,000 and demanded that he pay $25,000 in damages. The suit was heard and concluded on July 24, 2013, only a few months after the aforementioned draft of a cybercrime law was leaked which sets an eerie precedent for freedoms involving speech and the press.

The most recent transgression against Cambodian press officials occurred recently, October 14, 2014. While legally investigating illegal logging occurring in Kratie province, Cambodian journalist Taing Try was fatally shot. Three suspects have come forward admitting their participation in the crime. Military Police Officer Khim Pheakdey, Mondolkiri Chief of Police Ben Hieng, and Cambodia Royal Air Force member La Narong. All are self-confessed murderers, suspected traffickers, and elected government officials. They justified their actions with the excuse that Try had threatened to report them to the authorities through his roles in the Khmer Journalists for Democracy Association. The suspects are awaiting trial, but the assassination of Taing Try signifies the potential slaying of freedom of the press (Reporters without Borders).

Critical Comparison

Historically, The United States has always been ranked higher than Cambodia on the Reporters without Borders Freedom Index. But, despite international perception of the United States characterized as the ‘land of the free’, it shares a sense of contradictory precedents with Cambodia pertaining to speech and the press.

Restricted speech within the independent nation initiated with Cambodia’s dominant constitutional monarchy during the Khmer Rouges which did not give inherent rights to citizens. In fact, governmental wrongdoing without discipline was a customary practice. As mentioned, Cambodian’s were denied property, monetary, and general well-being rights. The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution addresses this by stating “no person shall deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” (Cornell University Law School: The U.S Constitution). However, in regards to property rights, the government can legally seize your home if they believe it is being used for criminal purposes. Illegally gifting a chocolate box that weighs less than 50 pounds, orchestrating a bingo game that exceeds five hours, and carrying ice cream in your pocket are considered criminal offenses in specific states of the US (The Huffington Post).

Prostitution was an offense punishable by death in the Khmer Rouges. Although the punishment for committing this act is far less excessive in the United States, no more than 180 days in jail under Texas law, there are court precedents involving the receipt of currency and explicit acts (FindLaw: Texas Prostitution Laws). Pryor v. Municipal Court coined the term “lewd conduct”, constituting that “the genitals, buttocks, or female breast, of either the prostitute or the customer must come in contact with some part of the body of the other for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification of the customer or of the prostitute” in order to be deemed prostitution. Outside of those parameters lies a completely legal display of First Amendment guarantees…hardcore pornography (ProCon: Pryor v Municipal Court).

Traditionally, as well as presently, Cambodia has internally countered the freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 41 of the Constitution of Cambodia (Constitution Society). Khmer protestors have endured imprisonment, injuries, and even death. The First Amendment grants the “right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”, but numerous cases have surfaced that support and deny this right (Cornell University Law School: The U.S Constitution). Snyder v. Phelps shielded protestors from liability when they picketed at the funeral of a deceased soldier. This precedent displayed that First Amendment rights are almost always guaranteed (Oyez). The precedent created by Morse v. Frederick counters the idea of universal impunity in respect to First Amendment freedoms establishing that speech that occurs on a school campus is subject to scrutiny and not always protected, even if the same speech is deemed constitutional outside school doors (Oyez).

Journalists in Cambodia have always been under watchful eye due to overpowering political control of media outlets. The imprisonment of Winchester signaled government corruption when he was found guilty of libel when it was really his speech and his press credentials that incited scrutiny. Congruently, among the many sovereignties outline by the First Amendment, “restricting the press” is prohibited. Constitutionally, government intervention is prohibited, but in respect to current practices it’s more infrequent than it is effectively banned. Near v. Minnesota was a monumental precedent for the field of journalism that protected the press from unconstitutional prior restraint (Oyez). With the ever-changing culture and increased mobilization of journalists, the First Amendment has been stretch to interpretation as to the rights allotted to new media and new functions of the press. The arrest of a Washington Post reporter, Wesley Lowery, August 14, 2014 spotlights the normal occurrence of being-detained-for-journalism-but-not-really, and the occurrence of tactical technicalities in favor of political force against pestilent reporters. Lowery was reporting on the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri when he noticed that his phone was dying. While charging his phone at a nearby McDonalds, he was approached by several police officers and demanded that he provide identification. The confrontation prompted Lowery to record the incident with his phone which immediately aggravated the police. A few minutes later, he would be asked to leave but was given unclear instructions resulting in what the Missouri police deemed an “untimely exit”. Lowery would be detained for failing to leave a McDonalds when it was his journalism that provoked police aggression and undermine his constitutional rights (The Washington Post).


Cambodia’s infancy as a nation could act as the determinant of relapsing constitutional quality. Many changes within its political division have caused fluctuating views on nationalism and public policy. The cultural growth of Cambodia signals a potential for governmental democracy that is synonymous to political practices involving free speech and freedom of the press upheld in the Unites States.


Works Cited


Liu, J. (2013). Crime and Justice in Cambodia. In Handbook of Asian criminology (pp. 167-168). New York, NY, New York: Springer.


Levine, S. (2014). South-East Asian States. In The 2014 annual register: World events 2013. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest. Retrieved from


Hoefinger, H. (2013). Modern Anthropology of Southeast Asia : Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia : Professional Girlfriends and Transactional Relationships. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from


Hoefinger, H. (2013). Modern Anthropology of Southeast Asia : Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia : Professional Girlfriends and Transactional Relationships. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from


Langley, W. E. (1999). Encyclopedia of Human Rights Issues since 1945. Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Press. Retrieved from


Piano, A. (2005). Political Rights and Civil Liberties. In Freedom in the world 2005 the annual survey of political rights & civil liberties (p. 123). New York, New York: Freedom House.


Reporter shot dead while investigating illegal logging – Reporters without Borders. (2014, October 14). Retrieved April 12, 2015, from,47099.html


Heavy damages award against blogger threatens all netizens – Reporters Without Borders. (2014, July 29). Retrieved April 12, 2015, from,46714.html


Fuller, T. (2014, January 4). Cambodia Cracks Down on Protest With Evictions and Ban on Assembly. Retrieved April 12, 2015, from

Learn More About Trade in Cambodia. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from


Amnesty International. (2015, January 21). Retrieved April 13, 2015, from


Carlson, K. (2014, May 27). Cambodia’s Draft Law Turns Free Speech into Cybercrime. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from

Campbell, A. (2013, August 14). 9 Crazy Crimes In The U.S. That Wouldn’t Be Illegal Anywhere Else. Retrieved April 11, 2015, from


Lowery, W. (2014, August 14). In Ferguson, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery gives account of his arrest. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from


SNYDER v. PHELPS. (2011, March 2). Retrieved April 12, 2015, from


PRYOR v. MUNICIPAL COURT. (1979, September 7). Retrieved April 12, 2015, from


MORSE v. FREDERICK. (2007, June 25). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from


This article was last updated on April 30, 2015.


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