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Comment: No power without responsibility

P ost reporter Ker Munthit urges the press to carefully examine its role in society.

Born after the UN elections, the Constitution, whose first anniversary we celebrated on Sept 21, was echoed by our country's highest echelons as "the most democratic constitution in the world." That proclamation is well recorded in my mind. What made it so telling is the introduction of principles respecting human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of press - the ingredients of democracy that we Cambodians hadn't had a chance to even smell for decades.

It has been one year that we have been trying to taste those ingredients. Being as journalists groping for the ideal of the free press, we are now engaged in a tug of war with the government without being sure whether we can win or, on the reverse, whether we will face a crackdown.

What is the current state of the press in Cambodia after one year of the experiment with freedom?

With close observation we can see that government resentment with the press - both local and international - has mounted.The press has taken upon itself a rather "destructive" criticism rather than a "constructive" one and is thwarting the government's efforts to rebuild the country. The press is blamed for creating a bad image about Cambodia that desperately needs investors and tourists; the press insults the government and its members.

Can one tell the difference between "destructive" and "constructive" criticism?

In the Cambodian context, my definition about the two criteria is that destructive criticism means you should better not criticize, and constructive criticism means you should better praise. Because in my own observation of the history of Cambodia's rich political and social upheavals there has been no cultural consensus on criticism. It is always taken as damage or losing face.

Let me draw on some examples for discussion.

When it was learned that thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers defected their ranks to the Royal Government in late 1993, we, goatherd journalists, headed to cover the event. Our job was to try to dig to the bottom of the topic. As we did so at that time we were able to discover that a large proportion of those defectors were fake. Among those fake defectors, some were just men who had been peasants days before. These bogus defectors were tricked into paying bribes to enter the Dei Eth rehabilitation center believing they would eventually secure an officer's post in the unified army. Obviously this underhand behavior went against the spirit of policies to promote national unity. After journalists wrote the story a directive was passed from the top to the bottom ordering no more meetings between journalists and defectors.

In December 1993, I was on assignment to cover the military situation in Siem Reap province, which was coincident with an integration ceremony of Khmer Rouge defectors into the Royal Army. At the end of the ceremony my colleague and I picked up two defectors to ask about their mood. There was an extra interviewee, who appeared to be the defectors' instructor, standing by to make sure that his subordinates would not veer from what they were lectured upon before hand. As journalists, we have the right to ask questions. Without surprise, responses to our questions were totally nonsense, party-line, because the instructor clearly represented a block of access to information on what the defectors might have wanted to say.

The government's victory and defeat in Pailin caught the headlines in both the domestic and international media. But the coverage about the defeat represented a more embarrassing picture of the government's mismanaged military strategy. As a matter of fact, the Khmer Rouge is not militarily strong either; and if the government had taken seriously the obvious retaliation by the rebels, it would have turned Pailin into a special economic zone up to today. Why the rebels could so easily recapture their base only within a matter of days? Because regular soldiers didn't bother counterattacking, while their commanders were busy loading furniture to make a profit in Battambang. Was the criticism about the government failure destructive?

Personally, I was upbeat about the government's victory. Being a journalist, I didn't have to let that emotion interfere with my profession, but at least I wanted to live up to the Constitution which stipulates "The Kingdom of Cambodia is indivisible."

Now, let's talk about ourselves. Some of us are extremely arrogant with an 'I-know-everything' attitude. Some of us tend to presume that journalism is something like having a press credential tagged to our chests; a camera hung on our neck.

We have taken freedom for granted, by failing to assess the right values when we practice it. We are enjoying a kind of free press, in which we compete in order to curse at each other, to teach people to insult, and to create problems for ourselves. Instead of promoting a free press, we are developing an anarchical press, in which we pretend to be self-assured, believing that what we think must be accepted by our audience. (Reference to the reporting style of some of Khmer-language newspapers can provide explicit understanding and argument about the situation of the press in Cambodia).

In fact, our role is as a "gatekeeper" responsible for collecting messages and delivering them to the audience. The latter is the one who makes judgments about those messages. Judgments will result in various forms of feedback that we have to accept, but reserve the right to correct mistakes and protect our position.

Although an uneducated person, or a person who has never entered a school of journalism at all, can work as a journalist, it should be acknowledged that journalism itself is not like two plus two equals four anyway.

Objectivity, in theory, is the main principle, however it has practically ceased to be the guideline for journalists. Absolutely, we can please Mr "A" with what we write, while leaving Mr "B" discontented. Since objectivity is defined as a matter of intent, it also includes freedom for journalists to disregard implications of the news and try to be fair. And the big word remains "responsibility".

No justification can be made for the death of Non Chan, the editor of the Voice of Khmer Youth. Though we may acknowledge that Non Chan failed to provide proof for his criticism and accusations against some untouchable politicians, did he deserve such a trial?

No. It is a shame that Koh Santepheap (Island of Peace) and Sakal (Universe) newspapers ran several commentaries trying to justify the death of their colleague. On the contrary, they must realize that his wrongdoings, and our wrongdoings, should never be judged by bullets.

The assassination has left an alarming signal for us who devote ourselves to journalism. It shocked and scared us. And we would hate terribly to see such a cowardly and cruel act repeat itself. There are still chances for us to correct our mistakes, by sticking ourselves to the generally accepted norms, by presenting accuracy, fairness and balance in what we write.

By using the pronoun "WE", because there is no reason for making any distinction among us, who, despite our attachment with foreign or locally-owned news companies, share the same profession and speak the same native language.

A dark cloud has hovered in the sky above our beloved motherland too long. It resembles the unproductive character of domestic politics of our nation; its economic and social life; its democratization, the course of which is tremendously complicated to shape and strengthen.

Our democracy is still fragile. If we journalists fail to produce the right ingredients, nobody else will do it for us. We don't have to let the chance for a free press be determined by power-holders, which is the government.

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