Siem Reap – Sitting amidst a group of 40 journalists, 56-year-old Hang Chakra shares his views on why it is important for the Cambodian government to recognise and respect the rights of individuals, and especially the media, to freedom of expression.
He should know. Hang Chakra, is the publisher of the Khmer language newspaper Machas Srok who was imprisoned for a year for defamation and criminal disinformation after exposing corruption in the higher echelons of the government. He was released after a royal pardon in April 2010.
“Nothing has changed me since I was imprisoned. I will stick to my position to be critical,” he said in an interview at a three-day training of 40 journalists from around Cambodia on reporting freedom of expression, organised by the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media.
He admitted that journalists should take more precautions by ensuring their work meets professional standards, but that they should not be afraid of legal constraints that could punish them, such as the Penal Code.
In addition to existing provisions in the Penal Code 1996 that do not support freedom of expression, the government introduced nine new ones to cover incitement, libel, slander, defamation and contempt, among others, in December 2010.
“Only half of the journalists here know their rights, the rest do not. And because of this, they do not dare to write stories. We need to continue with the training on rights and freedom for journalists in Cambodia.”
But he is not discouraged. He thinks the younger journalists are beginning to appreciate freedom of expression as a fundamental right and that they will be open to improving their skills and knowledge.
Hang Chakra has been a writer and journalist since the early 1990s and has had to move several times because of the treats he received for his articles. He started his own publication, the “Machas Srok” with the help of a sponsor, to be able to write freely. This didn’t last long as the sponsor was intimidated by the ruling party (the Cambodian People’s Party) and decided not to support Hang Chakra.
It was his continued pursuit of stories to expose corruption that led to his arrest and conviction in 2009.
While Cambodia has signed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and has constitutional provisions for press freedom, the reality is far from encouraging. The Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 128 out of 174 in the annual press freedom index for 2010.
Since his release, Chakra did not face any renewed threats but he faces a tough challenge of keeping his media project alive. “Since my imprisonment, the main challenge has been getting advertisers for the newspaper. I don’t know who put the pressure on the advertisers but it appears that they have been harassed over advertisements placed in my newspaper, which is critical of the government.”
SEAPA executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran and the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) press alerts officer Melanie Pinlac were among the resource people at the training.
SEAPA is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom andResponsibility (CMFR) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ); the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association (TJA); and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).
SEAPA also has partners in Cambodia, East Timor, and exiled Burmese media, and undertakes projects and programs for press freedom throughout the region.
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