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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Decree 'threatens freedom of expression'

Decree 'threatens freedom of expression'

THE Ministry of Information has revived the idea of issuing a subdecree spelling

out qualifications required to become a publisher or editor of news media in Cambodia.

The proposal was swiftly criticized by the UNESCO regional communications advisor

as a threat to freedom of expression for the press and ultimately the whole of society.

The subdecree was supposed to be one of the major topics at a June 29 "discussion

forum" on the freedom of press, though the subject only came up briefly during

the full-day meeting.

According to a ministry official, the subdecree, proposed on several occasions in

recent years, is still on the drawing board.

At the forum, the Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Information, Khieu Kanharith,

listed some of the qualifications that would be required for publishers and editors

by the subdecree.

The subdecree requires a publisher or editor to have a medical checkup to establish

that he or she is mentally sound, and further states that any publisher or editor

must have:

ïA high school diploma recognized by the Ministry of Education and a minimum one

year of journalist training, or

ïA bachelor university degree and minimum three months of journalism training.

If a future editor holds no academic credentials, he or she must have either three

years' working experience as a journalist or five years' working experience as a

photojournalist.

The Ministry of Information would determine if a candidate has the right credentials.

Kanharith said the subdecree was an attempt to strengthen the quality of Cambodian

media.

"Some editors are very young and some do not know what articles are printed

in their newspapers. About 50 percent don't even know how to write an article themselves,"

he said.

But others see the proposed subdecree as a limitation of both the freedom of the

press and the freedom of expression.

"Any restrictions and qualifications to limit the press or the people working

in the press would essentially impose limitation on the freedom of expression for

everybody," said Wijayananda Jayaweera, UNESCO regional communication advisor,

in a speech at the discussion forum.

The Government had initially asked UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific

and Cultural Organization - its opinion about the subdecree. After a bilateral consultation,

the Government suggested involving journalists in the debate about required qualifications

for publishers and editors, and UNESCO agreed to help organize the discussion forum.

However, the subdecree was hardly mentioned at the day-long forum. Of the five-member

discussion panel, consisting of Kanharith, Jayaweera, the advisor to the Prime Minister

Om Yentieng, the editor of the Thai newspaper The Nation Kavi Chongkittavorn, and

a local UNESCO representative, only Jayaweera addressed the subject in his speech.

Yentieng spoke of the need to put limitations and responsibility on freedom and how

the Cambodian press should be strengthened by giving some $10 million to the media.

This amount was later changed to $5 million and Yentieng added that the Post specifically

would not be entitled to any of this money.

"The freedom and quality is not the problem for Cambodian press. It is economy.

Foreign journalists get more salaries than the local journalists, who have a lot

of difficulties with their living conditions," said Yentieng.

No Cambodian editors or publishers were part of the discussion panel, though some

were present in the audience. According to the agenda, local and international organizations

were scheduled to contribute to the debate, but for unknown reasons this item was

dropped from the program.

Apart from the participants on the panel, comments were made by the president of

the government-supported League of Cambodian Journalists and editor of Mitta Phum,

Om Chandara, and Tat Ly Hok from the opposition supported Cambodian Journalists Association.

Chandara briefly criticized the requirement that publishers and editors had to be

mentally healthy.

"In principle that is a loss of freedom. If so, government officials and members

of parliament must also get a mental health check-up before they are promoted to

be parliamentarians or ministers," said Chandara.

In response to Post questions Kanharith said that if journalists didn't like the

content of the subdecree they could always suggest changes to the Ministry of Information,

"because a subdecree is easier to amend than a law".

Jayaweera said he hoped the Government would rethink its idea about a subdecree stipulating

the qualifications of publishers and editors.

"We thought the discussion forum was a very good idea, but it's sad to see that

the key people - the publishers and editors themselves - were not here today. No

other developing democracies have regulations like this, and what is really at stake

is the freedom of expression," he said.

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