Over the last few of days I’ve spoken with friends who live and work in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and China. A few happen to be in town visiting this week and others through Facebook and such. Amongst beers and pool games and casual banter, we’ve also touched on the Cambodian NGO Law debate and criticisms, and the land-grabbing issue, especially in light of the recent violent confrontation between police and Lake residents caught on video.
Interestingly, at some point in the various conversations, mostly just in passing, each one registered some degree of surprise or awe at the open debate and availability of information in Cambodia. In the case of the NGO law, that there has been extensive public criticism and debate and that the government actually seems to be taking some of it on board. In the case of the Lake confrontation, that local and foreign reporters were present, that it was openly photographed and videoed and that it’s all available on internet in Cambodia. To varying degrees, all of these activities would have been much more restricted, if allowed at all in my friend's various countries of residence. Reflecting this observation, the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index ranks Cambodia a moderately weak 128, but still better, in some cases significantly better than all of the surrounding countries - which says something about both Cambodia and her neighbors.
As we spoke, qualifiers such as the introduction of more restrictive laws over the last couple of years, the illusion of freedom amongst self-censorship and the apparent blocking of some websites did not go unnoted. But still, most were struck in one way or another by the fairly sharp contrast between the state of press and internet freedom in Cambodia as compared to their various East Asian homes. In this regard at least, Cambodia is the brightest spot in the dim landscape of Southeast Asian press freedom.