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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Chill goes through ''Cambodia Spring"

Chill goes through ''Cambodia Spring"

Frieda del Nuevos highlights the contradictions between the draft press law and the government's previous committments to the free flow of information by the media and rights NGOs.

"Cambodian nation and people, without discrimination or prejudice, and with full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." (The Paris Peace Agreement, signed by Funcinpec, the CPP, the BLDP and the Khmer Rouge, and 18 other nations on Oct 23, 1991).

"We must remember that freedoms and responsibilities must be balanced and that human rights and democracy are culturally bound." (Prince Norodom Ranariddh, speaking at the November 7 opening of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation)

"The Khmer Rouge has responsibility for the deaths of the hostages, but I blame the press even more." (Hun Sen, speaking to reporters in Kampot after announcing the deaths of three foreign hostages in Khmer Rouge custody)

When the Council of Ministers approved the sending of a strict new press law to the National Assembly on Nov 4, most ministers probably didn't realize that they were determining the future of a free press, human rights and democracy in Cambodia.

The draft law imposes jail terms and heavy fines on editors and journalists for a wide range of reporting, including stories impacting subjects as vague as "national unity," "stability of governing the state," "peace" and "causing a scandal". If passed by the National Assembly, the draft press law will almost surely mark the end of the "Cambodian Spring" of press freedoms.

Members of the government may have thought that, like good parents, they were simply spanking a naughty local press that has, in its brief, heady days of freedom, simply gone too far. The press needs a little discipline - "balancing freedom with responsibility" as Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen now repeat almost mechanically as their credo - and it is the role of the government to give it to them.

That the local press is often unprofessional and irresponsible is undeniable. Inexperienced and untrained, many journalists have little idea of what constitutes a news story. Reporters confuse rumors and opinions with facts and fail to cover the boring, daily grist of public affairs, instead spending their time crafting tomes of invective against their least favorite government figures.

The local press is also raucous. Vicious anti-Vietnamese cartoons are a staple. Many papers produce an endless stream of degrading puns involving the names of politicians - plays on words mixing real names with curse words or animals - and vilify politicians and others in gaudy cartoons, such as the recent cartoon depicting Hun Sen's wife as a self-indulgent human with the face of a pig. These depictions, some argue, violate Khmer cultural norms and should not be allowed (they won't be, under article 15 of the draft law).

But much more is at stake than a little parental discipline or a few ill-chosen cartoons. Many Khmer journalists also pen scathing - and accurate - political commentary.

Most unpopular are the many newspapers that formerly supported Funcinpec and are now disillusioned with Prince Ranariddh and Funcinpec for the compromising political course they have chosen. Prince Ranariddh, Hun Sen and Chea Sim are regular targets of classic, if not sophisticated, political attacks. Well founded political criticism is particularly unwelcome among political leaders, simply because of its accuracy.

Just as disconcerting, the local press regularly accuses senior government and military figures of corruption. Most of the subjects are members of the CPP and are probably unable to fathom how a Cambodian journalist could possibly have the audacity to criticize them in public for their behavior. Chea Sim was never criticized during the old regime; now it is a routine occurrence.

Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen have also been stung by criticism and negative portrayals by the international press which they believe have damaged tourism, foreign investment and Cambodia's image abroad.

Prince Ranariddh has made numerous public statements critical of the press. Funcinpec party members report that for many months Ranariddh has spent much of the weekly party meetings attacking the press in highly emotive terms. Hun Sen even went so far as to accuse the international press of responsibility for the deaths of the three foreign hostages in Kampot.

While the government has made many concrete advances in its first year, the flaws are obvious for all to see. For example, on October 19 Alain Lebas and Romain Franklin wrote a scathing commentary in the Paris daily Liberation, criticizing the Cambodian government and military for corruption and incompetence and arguing against the provision of foreign military aid.

The article was a standard critique of the current military and political situation - frequently voiced in private by government officials, MPs and former Australian Ambassador John Holloway, in a recently leaked cable - but it struck too close to the heart. Lebas and Franklin were summarily made persona non grata.

Cracking Down on the Press

Cambodian leaders appear to have decided that a free press is an irritant that they will no longer tolerate. With no opposition in government or the National Assembly, the time is ripe for sharply regulating the only real political opposition in the country - the press.

Consider some of the events of the past six months:

  • At least nine local newspapers have been threatened with closure or have been closed by the Ministry of Information or Ministry of Interior;
  • On Sept 7, Nuon Chon, editor of Voice of Khmer Youth, was shot and killed in broad daylight near Wat Phnom. Chon's paper was broadly critical of CPP leaders and Prince Ranariddh and published stories accusing senior security service figures of corruption. Before his death, Chon reported being followed and receiving a series of death threats. The previous editor resigned after receiving threats;
  • On July 9, Non Noun, editor of the Morning News, was jailed in P-J prison for accusing Chea Sim and Sar Kheng of masterminding the July 2 coup attempt. The Morning News had also regularly accused former Phnom Penh mayor Hok Landy and other CPP figures of massive corruption. Noun was released after an international outcry on August 2. Charges are still pending against Noun and his son;
  • On June 11, Thou Chhom Mongkol, editor of Antarakum, dies mysteriously on Monivong Boulevard from a blow to the head. No serious investigation was undertaken (inquiries were headed by Sin Sen, then a senior Ministry of Interior official and now in prison for his part in the July 2 coup) and no one has been arrested. In March the offices of Antarakum were attacked by grenade. No arrests were made in that case, either. Antarakum had written critically about members of both main political parties;
  • Many Khmer journalists report being followed by unidentified men and some report receiving explicit and veiled death threats from unknown persons;
  • French journalists Lebas and Franklin are banned and other Phnom Penh-based foreign journalists receive hints that their visas will be canceled if they continue to criticize the government.

The Draft Press Law

It was in this atmosphere that the recent Press Law was debated at the Council of Ministers. Sources say Prince Ranariddh set the tone for the discussion, stating emphatically that he was in favor of jail terms for "bad" journalists. Not a single member of the Council of Ministers demurred. As if to demonstrate just how poisonous the atmosphere has become between the government and journalists, the only changes made to the draft were to make its terms tougher.

It was undoubtedly no coincidence that the press law -stalled for many months - was finally debated by the Council of Ministers so soon after the sacking of Finance Minister Sam Rainsy and the resignation of Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh. Rainsy and Prince Sirivudh are ardent supporters of a free press and almost certainly would have objected to the draft.

The intention of the government to clamp down on the press was made clear days later when Secretary of State for Information, Khieu Khanharith (a former journalist previously known for championing press freedoms), reportedly issued verbal orders to two newspapers, Udom Katy and Voice of Khmer People, to cease publication.

Udom Katy's sin: printing a letter to the editor asking Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen to stop "barking." In the aftermath of the Nuon Chon murder, both papers have stopped publishing.

A Different Approach

In countries with a free press the minimum standard of press freedoms is simple: no jailing of journalists for the words they write and no closure of press organs for the words they print.

Such draconian penalties are not necessary to protect legitimate governmental interests, such as national security, public order or the reputations of individuals, and are not used in countries with a free press.

While the draft does provide some basic freedoms for journalists - confidentiality of sources, no pre-publication censorship (though this is taken away in part in another article by giving the government the power to close and collect newspapers), a modest freedom of information clause and the right to form independent press associations - the clear intent of the draft law is to punish critical journalists and create a climate of fear and censorship.

Strong penalties will inevitably lead to a great deal of self-censorship by editors who do not want to go to jail, pay high fines or have their paper closed.

The Khmer press needs training, experience and professionalism; the draft law provides jails and steep fines (interestingly, the jail terms and fines in the draft are substantially steeper than those in the highly repressive State of Cambodia law. (See box on Page 3). Instead of a helping hand, journalists are staring at a kick in the teeth.

How should the government respond to irresponsible journalism? The same way that governments successfully regulate the press around the world - through money and the courts. The fundamental premise is that journalists must be allowed and encouraged to print the truth. When they do not, individuals should be authorized by law to sue to redeem their reputations.

Newspapers are businesses. They need money to survive. Papers cannot afford to pay a lot of money in damages. If they lose too many defamation cases, they will go out of business. Printing the truth is in their own interests.

It's a simple and empirically successful concept. Yet in the past year only one public figure has filed a civil suit for defamation. That occurred earlier this month when Sam Rainsy sued the Cambodia Times for alleging he had committed treason.

If Rainsy wins his case, the Cambodia Times will think very carefully before printing untruthful allegations again. So will other newspapers.

In such an outcome will responsible journalists be born. Instead of using the sword, politicians should learn to use the law to tame irresponsible journalists. This would have the ancillary benefit of building respect for the rule of law and empowering the moribund court system.

It would also save the government a lot of headaches. With an expected stream of protest from international and local organizations since the draft law was released, perhaps the most poignant statement was from the Khmer Journalists Association, which said that "If the draft law is adopted by the National Assembly, the life of Khmer journalism will be endangered as a result of facing imprisonment for the written word. If this happens, political prisoners will return to the life of Cambodia."

The government should also remember that to the extent that development aid is related to human rights, it is freedom of the press which donors look at as a litmus test. Cambodia is receiving an enormous amount of foreign aid; if the human rights situation in Cambodia deteriorates and the attention of the world community moves to places like Rwanda or Bosnia, donor governments may be more willing to move their money elsewhere.

Freedom of the Press After the New Press Law

It is possible that the government does not intend to use all the weapons available to it in the draft.

Some suggest that only serious violations will be punished.

But in a country without an independent judiciary to check abuses by the executive branch, without a Constitutional Council in place to consider the constitutionality of the law, and, most importantly, without a political culture that has demonstrated an ability to practice self-restraint in its exercise of power, the prognosis is not positive.

Others may argue that Cambodia has an elected government that will ensure fair and proper implementation of the law. But in many areas, including the courts and police, day-to-day administration of the country remains in the hands of unreconstructed members of the previous regime who have little or no regard for a free press or democratic principles.

Still others may argue that Cambodia is not the United States, France or Australia and not yet ready for a free press. "Give Cambodia time to develop. We will gradually achieve full respect for human rights." This is a convenient argument for those in power, as it insulates them from opposition, but it fails for a number of reasons.

First, most countries with a free press were founded with a commitment to a free press. This is true of the United States, Canada, West Germany, India and Japan, among many others.

Other countries, such as China, Malaysia and Singapore, which came into existence without a free press, still do not have one. In spite of huge economic progress in Malaysia and Singapore, neither shows any signs of relaxing their regimes of censorship. Malaysia and Singapore may produce pretty newspapers, but the contents are only what the government allows editors to publish.

Second, this argument assumes that only Cambodia's leaders are smart enough to decide what Cambodians should read, watch and hear (the terms of this law will undoubtedly be emulated when a broadcasting law is drafted).

Leaders read the foreign press and watch CNN. Some may even read Liberation in spite of its stories about corruption in Cambodia. As a matter of principle, any ideas available through the foreign press should be equally available in the local press. Anything available to leaders - including political analyses - should be equally available to average people.

Finally, this argument inevitably leads to abuses of power and sets the stage for tyranny. If a free press had existed under the Khmer Rouge the genocide could never have happened. If a free press had existed under the Vietnamese controlled regime, it is doubtful they could have stayed in Cambodia for as long as they did. A free - and, yes, responsible - press is healthy for the political life of a country.

More than most countries, Cambodia has ample experience with the dangers of an unfree press and too much state control. King Sihanouk has said that he has learned through painful experiences never to attack the press and has called repeatedly for full press liberties and not to jail journalists. Others should heed his call.

Funcinpec and the Press

In light of King Sihanouk's outspoken stance in favor of the press, Prince Ranariddh's role in attacking press freedoms is particularly surprising and disheartening. No one expected Hun Sen or the CPP to champion press freedoms; they never have. But Prince Ranariddh and Funcinpec were supposed to be different.

When an astonishing 90 percent of eligible voters braved the threats of the Khmer Rouge, local militias of the ruling CPP, long lines and heavy rains to express their preferences in the 1993 election, they voted for change. Over 60 percent voted for opposition parties, most for Funcinpec, which campaigned strongly on the theme of respect for human rights and democracy.

Funcinpec, along with the other parties to the Paris Peace Agreements, pledged that after the elections there would be a new Cambodia, with full respect for basic freedoms and human rights.

The platform of Funcinpec, winner of a plurality in the election, stated that "the objectives of the Funcinpec Party are to ... found, in the spirit of national reconciliation, a liberal democratic society based on tolerance, dignity and respect for human rights." Articles 31 and 41 of the Constitution also commit Cambodia to freedom of the press.

There were no footnotes to these commitments, no caveats explaining that only some human rights or only the human rights that are culturally significant would be respected. In fact, unequivocal support by all parties for human rights was an indispensable part of the political deal that saw the world community invest $2 billion to set up Untac and stage elections.

Without such unequivocal commitment to human rights there would have been no elections and Prince Ranariddh would not be the Prime Minister today. Cambodians voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not the Chinese, Malaysian and Singaporean line on human rights.

The argument that Asia is somehow different and the people either do not want, need or merit full human rights could not be less appropriate to Cambodia and its recent history.

Prince Ranariddh, Hun Sen and the rest of Cambodia's leaders have made commitments to the world, and more importantly, to the Cambodian people, to strive for full respect for human rights. Uncomfortable as this may be at times, this includes a free press, able to expose all the warts of a country passing through a difficult but potentially liberating era.

If the new boss turns out to be the same as the old boss, Untac will have wasted $2 billion merely to move two political parties from the Thai border to Phnom Penh.

Even flying first class, the airfare from Aranyaprathet to Phnom Penh shouldn't be that expensive.

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