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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Better protection urged for journalists

Better protection urged for journalists

Local and overseas journalists called for increased cooperation and better protection

for Cambodian press staff at a conference held in Sihanoukville January 11-13. The

aim of the workshop was to improve professional standards and strength-en press freedom.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a regional press body, met with representatives

of the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) and the League

of Cambodian Journalists (LCJ). They expressed concern at legal threats from government,

and physical intimidation.

"Governments never allow the press to have freedom - we have to fight for

freedom," said Manich Sooksomjitra, chairperson of the Press Council of Thailand.

"Democracy does not only mean elections; people also have to have freedom of

expression."

Um Sarin, president of CAPJ, said that although Cambodia's government recognized

the concept of press freedom, threats and intimidation continued.

He noted there were four court cases against Khmer newspapers last year: in one case,

four journalists were detained and accused of extorting money; in three other cases

three journalists were accused of involvement in the Cambodian Freedom Fighters,

a banned organization dedicated to the overthrow of the government. Six other journalists

were threatened with injury or death.

Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and

Responsibility in the Philippines, told the Post that journalists in Thailand, Indonesia

and the Philippines faced similar difficulties to their Cambodian colleagues.

"If you have a government that doesn't want to listen to the press then you

have real problems," she said. Alluding to low standards, she commented, "I

think that Cambodian journalists need to work harder to win public support."

A controversial draft subdecree to the 1995 Press Law has been frozen since August

last year following strong criticism from five local journalists' associations. The

proposed legislation, which has been the subject of many seminars, is designed to

regulate newspaper licensing.

Some of its provisions - a minimum educational requirement and mental health

standards for editors and publishers - were condemned as contrary to press freedom.

Other concerns were references to publishing information deemed a threat to "political

stability" or "national security".

"We do not want the sub-decree; we want some amendments to the Press Law,"

said Om Chandara, president of the LCJ. He said that the Press Law contained no definition

of national security, which was dangerous as the law allowed the government to suspend

any publication that it thought endangered national security or political stability.

A book published by SEAPA and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

(PCIJ) stated that freedom of expression and access to information in Cambodia had

been severely hindered by authoritarian regimes, wars, civil conflicts, factional

politics, poverty and international isolation.

"The amount of information has grown significantly in recent years, but like

much else in the country, information is being hoarded by the rich and powerful,"

stated the book. The vast majority of Cambodians did not have the information they

needed to improve their lives or influence the people who govern them.

"The government and the civil and military bureaucracy, dominated since 1979

by Prime Minister Hun Sen's formerly communist party, are authoritarian and secretive,"

wrote Peter Eng, a veteran journalist. "The state's lack of transparency, not

only in 'sensitive' areas like security but also in health, education and other fields,

has allowed for much inefficiency, corruption and exploitation of the people,."

"We often say that press freedom is the first freedom, because it is impossible

to hold honest elections or discuss social change without a free press," said

Lin Neumann, an advisor for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"Of course, dictators never like the press because the press is an irritant

to be controlled when possible, manipulated when convenient and destroyed when necessary,"

he said. "However, I think the strongmen of government are slowly losing the

game."

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