When Barack Obama came to Cambodia in November as the first sitting US President to visit this country, many people believed his presence could be a boost to Cambodian democracy as well as promoting media freedoms in the Kingdom.
But Cambodia already had had its own strong advocate for democracy and press freedom long before Obama came.
And that person was none other than our late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
In addition to his numerous achievements for Cambodia and the Cambodian people, our revered King Father has left behind a great legacy of tolerance for the media and journalists as a role model in establishing democracy, and in the respect for press freedoms and freedom of expression in Cambodia.
It should be recalled that in December, 1994, Sihanouk urged the government not to enact a press law that mandated criminal penalties for a variety of offences, including insulting the Crown.
“As far as I am concerned, I declare once again that no journalists be punished or hauled before the court because of me, because of their attacks (be they unjust or slanderous) against me,” the King Father was quoted by the media as saying in a statement read by Sieng Lapresse, then-spokesman for the Information Ministry.
As a result, no articles in the Khmer Press Law, adopted in July, 1995, contained any provisions that carried criminal punishment for journalists who insulted the monarchy.
In any case, no Cambodian journalists appear to have ever insulted the King Father or the monarchy.
Government officials, however, don’t seem to share the King Father’s tolerance towards the Cambodian media.
They have arrested and jailed one journalist after another for expressing their opinions and exercising their legitimate right, as enshrined in the Cambodia’s Constitution and the Khmer Press Law.
Since Sihanouk’s death, it has been suggested that all political prisoners should be pardoned and released out of respect for our late King Father.
As a first step, we hope the government will release Mam Sonando, who has been sentenced to 20 years in jail for being associated with a so-called secessionist movement. Such a move would strengthen our free press and democracy.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh
Director, Cambodia Institute for Media Studies