Is there Press Freedom in Cambodia? – 2023 Guide

When it comes to the question of if there is press freedom in Cambodia western governments and advocacy groups often take a dim view, but what is the real situation for journalists in the field??

A history of Press Freedom in Cambodia

The modern Cambodian state has gone through a number of incarnations from French colony to absolutes monarchy, one party state, and of course the brutal regime of Pol Pot and Democratic Kampuchea.

Cambodians think about Pol Pot

And while now the nation is officially a multi-party constitutional monarchy modern Cambodia has had democracy for very little of its existence, and thus very little press freedom. And that includes during the rule by popular leaders such as King Sihanouk, who would jail or do worse to journalist from both the right and left who he deemed a threat.

To read if King Sihanouk was King of the Khmer Rouge click here

Where does Cambodia rank on the Press Freedom Index

Every year Reporters Without Borders do a list from top to bottom for countries based on their level of press freedom. As expected the countries of Scandinavia tend to top the list, while the usual suspects like North Korea and Eritrea usually taking the bottom spots.

To read about Cambodia – North Korea relations click here

What is most interesting about the list though is quite how low many of the western allies are placed, although these countries seem to get a free pass simply for being allies. One example of this is Equatorial Guinea, generally considered one of the worst dictatorships in the world,  but also a staunch US ally and thus one we hear very little about.

So, what is the rank of Cambodia in the Reporters Without Borders 2022 list? In 2022 Cambodia ranked 142 out of 180 countries, a jump of 2 places when compared with 2021. And while this does look bad on the face of things, some context does need to be employed. Singapore a staunch western ally and seemingly a place that can do no wrong was ranked 167th in 2021, moving just above Cambodia to `139th in 2022. 

Other ASEAN members score even lower with the Philippines coming in at 147, Laos at 161, Vietnam at 174th and Myanmar lastly at 176. With the lions share of the other lowly ranked countries coming from our staunch allies in the Middle-East.

So for context, 142nd is not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Press Freedom in Cambodia – Are foreign press free to report?

Ironically organisations such as the Overseas Press Correspondents (OPCC) that complain most about freedom of the press are all journalists that are allowed to live, work and report from the country. Do they get invited to every event? No they do not, but their mere presence shows that there is free access to the international press within Cambodia.

And that ends up having the circular effect of these organisations often sponsored by foreign governments using their platform to push for further press freedom, something they could, or would not do in Singapore, Vietnam, or Laos for example.

Press Freedom in Cambodia – are there independent publications?

Compared to a kind of golden era in the 1990’s there are now less publications that are, or would be anti-government, with the Cambodia Daily closing under controversial circumstances and the Phnom Penh Post somewhat changing its editorial line. 

Getting a media license though is far from impossible though and there is a thriving industry in publications specialist in some form or another, such as for business, or sport

When it comes to working as a journalist here though generally a lot of freedom and access is given, although all writers employ a degree of self-censorship on certain matters. 

Stability vs Freedom of the Press

So, while Cambodia is far from perfect we should not use countries like Sweden as a barometer. Cambodia has had seen its economy grow by an average of 7.7% pre-covid and is very much on track to become a middle-income country by 2030.

In actuality the country has a far more free press, as well as stability than it has had for the vast majority of its modern history, yes improvements can always be made, but not necessarily at the priority of things such as growth.

And lastly when it comes to things such as democracy, or freedom of the press, there is a certain arrogance to how western countries view themselves as the personification of perfection. In south-east Asia at least countries are much more likely to look at Singapore as q benchmark for success than the United States.