Cambodian Journalists Vowed to Fight Against Abuses of Their Rights

24 January 2002

SIHANOUKVILLE, CAMBODIA — Cambodian journalists have agreed the legal intimidation by authorities posed a major threat to their freedom and vowed to unify their fights against this malpractice during a workshop being held here from January 11-13, 2002

They recognised the need for several local press associations to unite or even merge in order to become a strong force countering the abuses of press freedom. However due to the factional politic besetting local news organizations, they said they needed time to strike a common ground on the question of merger and outsider assistance to provide as a mediator in the process.

There are presently six press associations in Cambodia, some of them are believed to have linked to political parties.

Attending the workshop on Advocacy and Protection for Cambodian Journalists, were 32 journalists representing the newly-formed Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) and the League for Cambodian Journalists (LCJ). The workshop was organized by Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and supported by World Press Freedom Committee and International Freedom of Exchange (IFEX).

The workshop were joined by five foreign speakers- three from SEAPA, one each from Press Council of Thailand (PCT) and Committee to Protect Journalists(CPJ).

The first day of the discussion focused on Cambodia’s press situation in both regional and global contexts and identification of the problems confronting Cambodian press. On the second day , the discussion was centered on the working strategies to counter intimidations against the press and build strong local press advocacy and self-regulatory groups.

Lin Neumann, CPJ advisor for Asia admitted while the media everywhere has become freer-including Cambodia- journalists have found new risks associated with their work.

Nevertheless Lin noted the equally important development that has accompanied the rise of press freedom not only in Asia but in the entire world: the growth of both local and international organisations dedicated to protecting the rights of journalists.

According to Lin, this development provided a chance for journalists who organised and worked together for their own protection and defense to eventually win the battle against repressive regimes.

Sharing the same thought, Chavarong Limpattamapanee, acting chair of SEAPA said to counter abuses against press freedom especially by their governments, local press advocacy groups needed not only to build its institutional strength and strong partnership with other local civic groups but also establish a systematic network with their counterparts from the outside.

Moreover to hold governments accountable for their misconducts against the press and discourage them from repeating it over required accurate and prompt reports on those cases so international pressure against those governments could be timely delivered, he said.

During the discussion, Cambodian journalists identified the legal indimidations by government and authorities as most serious problem confronting them, followed by physical threats, lack of professionalism and responsibility and the lack of resources.

They pointed out the ambiguous terms in the 1995 Press Law namely the article 12 which prohibits press to report on issues that affects “national security and political stability”. Without clarity, authorities could exploit ambiguity in this law to place charges against journalists, they said.

They were very much concerned with the draft amendment to the 1992 Penal Code, which will increase fines and jail terms for the code set out fines for the publications of false information that disturbs public order, defamation and libel.

The draft amendment pending the parliament approval provides basis for authorities to detain journalists up to six months without trial, up from 24 hours at present.

At one point of the discussion, participants admitted local press was to be blame for, with too many newspapers competing whereas the readership market was small due to the country’s low literacy and the economic slowdown.

It was found out that 67 Per Cent of the country’s some 12 million population was illiterate while most readership concentrated in Phnom Penh. Several newspapers were forced to close down for bankruptcy, others cut back their publications from daily to bi-weekly, bi-monthly or once a month depending on the investment available.

They agreed the fact that the number of publications sprung up to presently 173 from 24 in 1993 was strongly attributed to the country’s entrenched factional politics.

“More editors mean more newspapers,” said one participant, noting the trend in which reporters go and set up newspapers just because they want to become editor.

This is why local press is easily prone to political interference and intimidation, they acknowledged.

Since Cambodia’s first democratic elections in 1993, half a dozen of local journalists were killed, either over their reports of authorities’ malpractice or involvement in Cambodia’s factional politic.

Nevertheless, no investigation in these cases have been concluded Nor the killers were held accountable for their misconducts.

The latest case being recorded was Cheng Sokha, publisher of Khmer Children Idea, who was killed last January, according CAPJ President Um Sarin.

Sarin said publisher of Voice of Khmer Youth , the paper leaning toward Sam Rainsy Party fled to the US in August. Most opposition papers or those critical of Hun Sen government are prime target of political intimidations.

Sarin said Bakong newspaper was ordered closed on allegation it was linked to an anti-government armed group called freedom fighters.

He said the English-language Cambodian Daily was ordered by lower court in August to pay fine of 30 million riel (about US$700) for allegedly defaming Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong on his past involvement with Khmer Rouge and in December was temporarily closed for 15 days.

Editors of other papers were summoned by the court for allegedly defaming others. They were asked to either stop publishing reports on grafts or private affairs of government officials or print apology note for those damaged on their papers. Or else they must pay hefty fine or face closure

Reporters especially in the provinces also faced harassment by government authorities and mob attacks for their reportings on irregularity within the local administration.

Sarin said the situation discouraged local media from reporting facts in particular those related to corruption. He added as the country’s first communal election approached, the self-censorship among the press was put to practice and most newspapers, rather than competing for news just copied reports in the pro-government news papers.

There were some journalists detained or jailed related to abuses of ethical and professional standard. Nevertheless, some improvement in the professional standard has been recognised. Rasmei Kampuchea (The light of Cambodia), the best-selling vernacular daily and its rival Koh Santepheap (Island of Peace) are competing for readership by improving the printing quality and the choice of articles and photos.

Om Chandara, LCJ president however downplayed the threats against journalists. The fact that the meeting was being held without the presence of government authorities . The present threats against Cambodian press was minor, mostly concerned with the telephone and faxed threats, Chandara said.

He said what matters is the lack of professional standards and the low-income earnings among Cambodian journalists. Still journalists need to observe the laws and punish when they violate the rights to privacy.

He admitted some Cambodian journalists published baseless stories with no evidence supports or take the advantage of being journalists to do business.

He said it was an open secret that journalists had no qualms about taking “petrol money” from their news sources or political parties they support since most of them were low-paid and could not rely on the profession to support their living.

The LCJ president said journalists have not fulfilled their role in reporting on the rural development, many concentrated their reportage in central areas. This was partially due to the difficulty in access to information in the rural areas, he said.

Lukas Luwarso, SEAPA country director for Indonesia said the Cambodian press is facing similar situation with Indonesian press. Indonesian press sprung up to 1,200 publications after the fall of Suharto in 1998 and now stood at some 700 as some closed down due to bankruptcy. Nowadays the media reports facts without censor with no government warning to reprimand in appropriate content.

Lukas said the hard-won press freedom ironically become a threat to some parts of the society because it is perceived to have such a powerful power and effect something that is rather mythical.

He said SEAPA Jakarta has developed a systematic monitoring mechanism for abuses against the press with a call center receiving reports of abuses from the public as well as from journalists. There are forms to be fulfilled to record the nature of the abuses including basic questions like What-When-Where-Why-How.

The key is journalists should know how to investigate into the cases in order to have accurate reports and ample evidence to be able to hold culprits accountable for their misconducts.

Various models of institutions in Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines and difficulties in putting them in place have been discussed during the workshop.

Manich Sooksomjitra, chairperson of newly-formed Press Council of Thailand addressed the workshop by recounting the development of Thai press which up until now is in the stage of self-regulation.

Manich said the birth of Press Council was a testimony to this development. Set up in 1997, the Council acts as a monitoring unit of journalistic misconducts and provides as a public platform to hear their complaints about sensationalism and obscene reportings in the press.

From time to time, PCT will issue statements urging member organisations to strictly observe ethics and professional standards. That however is done on voluntary basis.

In Philippines where press freedom is vibrant, there is long tradition of self-regulation. Press council, press ombudsman, public forum and media monitoring publications, award program for best investigative are parts of the efforts to inhibit self-regulation among Philippines press community, according to Melinda de Jesus, a SEAPA board member.

“Press Freedom is not the only thing that is vital to democratisation process. Civic participation is equally important. To protect press freedom, press must get the support of the public through building credibility, said Melinda who is also executive director of Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Melinda said it took amount of time to convince press to see the institutional values. While emphasis the need for voluntary practice for the press self regulation, a critical mass of leaders among press communication who are committed to these efforts would have better chance of success to reform bad practices, she said.

According to the resolution reached at the end of the workshop, Cambodian journalists must unit to set up an umbrella council of journalists to lead struggle against the legal intimidation with assistance from counterparts from outside.

They also agreed present six press associations must be convinced to issue joint petitions to government and political parties to stop issuing laws or decrees obstructing press freedom. In viewing this, Cambodian journalists have to sacrifice their individual benefits for collective benefit.

They said all press associations must establish a dialogue with civic groups within the country- be there parliament , non-governmental organisations and hold regular public forum to discuss abuses against press freedom and review journalists’ performance.

They agreed in principle to hold a roundtable among journalist associations and other civic groups by the end of this year to identify legal problems facing Cambodian press and arrive at strategies to deal with these problems).

Local press association must establish contacts with outsider press advocacy groups to draw resources for their institutional buildings, professionalism, and legal counselling.