THE government is to define the controversial "political stability" and
"national security" provisions of the press law and require all newspapers
to be officially registered under a new sub-decree.
Human rights workers fear the move will amount to a virtual rewriting of the controversial
law, with the government giving itself greater power to close down newspapers than
the National Assembly agreed to.
The Ministry of Information has arbitrarily declared that no new newspapers can be
established until the sub-decree is finalized.
Once approved, the decree will permit the ministry to refuse to allow newspapers
to be published if they are run by unqualified or inexperienced people, according
to Minister of Information Ieng Mouly.
One human rights observer said the provision would go against the explicit wishes
of MPs who voted on the press law.
The law requires newspapers to "submit an application" to "identify"
themselves to the ministry, but gives no right for applications to be refused. In
an early draft of the law the ministry was allowd to publish a sub-decree governing
the "identification" process. MPs, in one of the few substantive changes
to the draft, decided to remove that provision.
"The MPs said 'No, we don't think you should be able to do this'," said
the human rights' worker. "Now the ministry is doing just that."
He suggested the government, particularly in the run up to elections in the next
two years, would pick and choose which newspapers it would allow to be published.
Mouly denied any intention to restrict the freedom of the press, but said that people
who did not have journalism certificates or experience would not be allowed to run
A July 18 statement signed by Mouly declared that the ministry would temporarily
postpone receiving applications from new newspapers until the sub-decree was in place.
The Minister said the move had been requested by some journalists who considered
the press was becoming anarchic in Cambodia, with too many newspapers. The sub-decree
would also lay down definitions of "political stability" and "national
security", which had also been requested by journalists.
The press law allows newspapers who breach political stability or national security
to be suspended, but does not define the terms. Despite strong criticism from some
quarters to be put definitions in the law, the government instead told MPs it would
define them in a separate sub-decree.
Journalists and human rights workers generally accept the benefit in having the terms
defined. However, they said that if the definitions were too tight - virtually any
political story could arguably affect political stability, said one journalist -
the potential for abuses would be high.
Mouly said: "I think it is good because we can answer the journalists' request
[as to] what they can write and what they cannot write."
Khieu Kanharith, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Information, said the ministry
would soon invite press associations to discuss the draft sub-decree before submitting
it to the Council of Ministers for approval.
The League of Cambodian Journalists (LCJ), whose membership includes much of the
pro-government press, welcomed the sub-decree.
"I want the sub-decree to state clearly the provisions, because so far national
security and political stability has not been clear," said LCJ president Chum
"But I want to see it first. If it puts too much pressure on journalists, I
will seek changes to it and I believe the ministry will follow us."
The independent Khmer Journalists Association (KJA) was somewhat more concerned about
the decree, with president Pin Samkhon saying he feared it was politically motivated.