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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Soldiers for free speech

Soldiers for free speech

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Politicians and other public figures around the world have long been offended and frustrated by the reportage by pre-eminent journalists and writers of their time, but they have also realised that journalism and public discourse are integral parts of a democratic society and a transparent government.

Since 1990, thirteen journalists have been killed in Cambodia, while many more have been threatened, despite the freedom of the press that is guaranteed under the Cambodian Constitution.

In 2009, in its Press Freedom Ranking, international press watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 117th out of 174 countries, rising 9 spots from 126.

However, many journalists within the country felt like this ranking did not reflect the reality of the situation in the Kingdom.

In June last year, Hang Chakra, publisher of the opposition-aligned Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, was convicted of spreading disinformation after publishing a series of stories accusing officials of corruption. More recently, Ros Sokhet, a freelance journalist, was convicted of disinformation charges after a court ruled that he sent disparaging text messages to Cambodian Television Network (CTN) anchor Soy Sopheap.

In what has been called the “most chilling case of the period reviewed”, local rights group Licadho’s 2009 report, ‘Restrictions on the Freedom of Expressions in Cambodia’s Media,’ says that the murder of opposition-affiliated Moneaksekar Khmer newspaper journalist Khim Sambo was an indicator of the true situation in Cambodia.

“His killing brings to at least 10 the number of journalists murdered since the country’s new Constitution was promulgated in 1993. It remains the case that none of their killers has been brought to justice, reinforcing the message of impunity enjoyed by those who threaten or perpetrate violence against journalists.”

Due to fear of legal suits, intimidation, harassment or worse, many reporters stay clear from covering sensitive, major issues that may lead them into trouble.

“Attacks on journalists have changed from broad daylight murdering on the streets to bringing them before the court for disinformation,” Moeun Chhean Narridh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, told The Post.

Cambodia’s media infrastructure was largely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. It wasn’t until 1991 that the restoration took place. And today, there are more than 300 print newspapers, up from 200 since 2000, partially a result of millions of dollars spent by the international community to train Cambodian media professionals. These efforts have continued largely through the private investments of companies that see journalism as a profitable enterprise – people in the country like to read newspapers and the country needs people to put them together.

Although the newspaper proliferation has given Cambodia one of the freest media environments in Southeast Asia, past trauma and present threats still plague the Cambodian press. Publishers often encourage reporters and editors to exercise self-censorship by covering only less sensitive and often less interesting stories in order to stay out of harm’s way, observers say. “We note a number of concerns with regard to the use of justice in order to limit freedom of expression and political freedom,” said John Von Kaufman, representing Canada in early December last year, when Cambodia came before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for its formal rights review.

Every year the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Media and Communication Department, established in 2001, takes in 30 students to go through its intensive 4-year bachelors’ degree programme. A new generation of media professionals is emerging and taking the challenge of succeeding in a field that has long been seen as dangerous ground.

“I have little fear of reporting on major news as long as I can gather credible sources and accurate information,” said 21-year-old Prak Thyda, who is in her third year.

“Press quality has been gradually improved as newspapers tend to compete with each other for both readers and advertisers for financial reasons – a huge step from a party-controlled socialist-styled media,” said Moeun Chhean Narridh, himself a veteran journalist.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted virtually unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly. It urges member nations to promote human, civil, economic and social rights, including freedom of expression and religion.

Cambodian journalists must feel that they have this right, or else the media will never serve Cambodians the way it should.

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