This article examines how Cambodian journalists reported during the 28 July elections, Cambodia’s fifth democratic, multi-party elections since the Paris Peace Accord in 1993.
As in the past four elections, different Cambodian news organizations have done a tremendous job to fulfill their important roles to inform and educate the public about democracy, human rights and the electoral process regardless of the quality of their news products and their political affiliations.
Nevertheless, Cambodian journalism is still a long way from reaching professional maturity. There have been many complaints about some media outlets and journalists breaching professional practices, including media blackout of opposition rallies and controversial stories, extorting the facts, taking bribes and plagiarism.
As a result, there has been a wave of criminal lawsuits against journalists for defamation, disinformation and incitement, and many journalists have been arrested and some have been put in jail for expressing their opinions.
Cambodian journalists’ ethical infractions are compounded by the lack of access to information as well as harassment by physical and legal attack and other limits on press freedoms and freedom of expression as a whole.
With an extensive experience reporting on the previous four general elections organized in Cambodia between 1993 and 2008, Cambodian journalists have developed a notably high skill in reporting on the fifth general election held on July 28, 2013.
Stories appearing in newspaper pages and airwaves ranged from the irregularities of voters’ lists, the return of the opposition leader Sam Rainsy after four years in self-exile and the political campaigns to the review of the political platform of each of the eight political parties contesting in the election to an in-depth look into individual candidates and the feelings of their supporters in the streets.
Some media outlets provided special news analysis on the election process, the political rallies and election irregularities by interviewing prominent exerts on democracy, human rights, the media and other election-related topics as well as press freedom and freedom of expression with regards to the banning of Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Radio French International from broadcasting on local stations on election day.
Compounded by the government’s restrictions, many media organizations had exercised self-censorship by not reporting on anything that the government might not want to see and hear during the election. All pro-government newspapers, radio and TV stations had continued their entrenched policy of media blackout of opposition rallies, including the return of opposition leader Sam Rainsy from abroad.
Surprisingly, all three Chinese-language newspapers in Cambodia had joined the Cambodia Daily, the Phnom Penh Post, the Voice of Democracy radio and the three international broadcasters in reporting on opposition rallies and Mr. Sam Rainsy’s return from overseas. The editors of the Chinese newspapers maintained that it was for their professional and economic interests to publish stories about the opposition.
Challenges in reporting
Probably the most disturbing challenge facing Cambodian journalists is the physical attacks that resulted in more than a dozen deaths and several injuries during the past 20 years with many of the cases happening during the election period.
In addition to the killings, there have been numerous physical assaults and attempted murders of journalists, which resulted in several injuries and an atmosphere of fear among Cambodian journalists.
With a great relief, no journalist was murdered during the 2013 election, although there were physical assaults on journalists who covered the demonstration against the blocking of the roads and a peaceful protest by land activists.
Between the physical harassments against Cambodian journalists, the attacks on Cambodian media professionals have moved from the streets to the courthouses, where journalists face cases of defamation, disinformation and incitement during the past two decades. Though no journalists were prosecuted for election-related crimes during the 2013 general election in Cambodia, about half a dozen journalists based in Kompong Chhnang province were arrested on charges of extortion.
Apart from physical and legal attacks, Cambodian journalists still face other challenges, ranging from low wages, inadequate means to cover the stories, low professional skills, to the lack of access to information.
Many Cambodian journalists have entered the media profession without proper professional training and education to replace senior and more qualified journalists who moved on to work at foreign-language press or other higher paying jobs. Their poor quality stories and innocent criticism can have a boomerang effect in the form of of physical attacks or legal actions brought by government officials or rich businessmen.
Meanwhile, Cambodian journalists’ poor professional skills are compounded by the lack of access to information which prevents journalists from gathering enough information for their stories, including the banning of a local reporter from reporting on the prime minister’s announcement of the new cabinet.
Fulfilling their role
To a greater extent, all Cambodian media outlets and journalists have fulfilled their obligation to inform and educate the public about election-related issues such as democracy and human and rights as well as the electoral process.
Meanwhile, pro-government newspapers, radio and TV stations have continued to maintain their entrenched policy of self-censorship by not reporting on opposition rallies or negative stories about the government.
As a young and fragile democracy, Cambodia has been criticized for its crackdown on the press, particularly its ineffective measures to stop the killings of journalists and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
With all these challenges encountered by Cambodian journalists, there are a number of solutions which include the upgrading of professional skills for journalists through training, the prosecution of perpetrators of the crimes against journalists and the ending of the culture of impunity, and the improvement the current press law and the adoption of the freedom of information law.
In consideration of challenges encountered by Cambodian journalists in carrying out their work, the following recommendations may be put forward:
- Adopt a Freedom of Information Law that meets international standards and does not legalize or worsen current restrictions on access to information in Cambodia.
- All media outlets should be free to report on all stories during the election, including on election day.
- Abolish the crimes of defamation/libel and disinformation in Cambodian criminal law, in favor of using the provisions of the civil Press Law to provide redress for defamatory or false publication of information.
- Ensure that the new Penal Code fully complies with international standards for protection of freedom of expression, and in particular does not contain criminal defamation or disinformation or similar offenses.
- Find effective measures to investigate and punish all reported cases of killings, harassment, threats, violence or other interference with journalists.
- All media professionals in Cambodia should abide by professional codes of ethics.
- Media owners need to provide journalists with livable salaries so that they can do their job at higher professional standards.
- Media owners should allocate the time and resources for journalists to attend journalism training, including on election reporting.
[The author, Moeun Chhean Nariddh, is the Director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies (CIMS)]