WORLD Press Freedom Day, May 3, was marked by a United Nations statement emphasizing
the importance of the safety and independence of journalists.
However, Cambodia's press still suffers from political pressures and fear of violence,
media analysts and journalists say.
Political allegiance is evident in most of Cambodia's newspapers, as most papers
have a patron from one political party or another, media experts say.
"They don't want the educational aspect [of publishing], they just want political
targets," lamented Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith.
A human rights lawyer who spent five years in Cambodia agreed.
"All three parties in the National Assembly are guilty of this. . . many editors
and journalists explicity and fairly openly accept money to take a political line,"
said Brad Adams.
"Others are intimidated - explicitly and by the general political atmosphere
- into following the government line."
The editor of one Khmer-language newspaper said that with Cambodia's small advertising
base, newspapers are often forced to rely on wealthy owners, many of whom have political
"Because business is not good, politics interferes," said the editor, who
asked for anonymity.
Khieu Kanharith agreed that financial pressures make it difficult to have a truly
free press in Cambodia.
He said he had suggested a subsidized printing press and tax exemptions on newsprint
to make papers cheaper to produce.
"When newsprint becomes cheaper. . . then you can say, 'I don't want any link
with political parties, okay, I can still run my paper'," he said.
"Then we can let the market decide."
But he said the financial arms of the government have not responded positively to
The editor also admitted he sometimes feels constrained about the stories he should
"Even when we have the evidence, we must consider whether that kind of thing
would lead to a bloody war."
The Information Ministry warns or suspends newspapers which it judges violate the
press law's currently ill-defined categories of "affecting national security"
or "public order".
Kanharith said that a new subdecree was in the works at the Ministry, defining these
terms and giving the Ministry power to fine errant publications.
A draft subdecree produced last year drew criticism from human rights groups, and
Kanharith said their concerns are being taken into account.
He also added that the Ministry has suspended issuing new licenses for new newspapers,
which human rights groups have objected to.
"The Minister [Lu Laysreng] says there are too many," Kanharith said, noting
that Cambodia has over 200 newspapers and magazines.
"But if there is a demand for a specialized magazine, then we can do it.
"The role of the Ministry. . . is to make the press more professional and to
make it free from political and financial pressures," he added.
Media analyst Adams agreed: "Lack of training remains a serious problem, but
all the training courses in the world will not make much difference unless journalists
are untethered from politicians," he said.
"Most of the trainees know what a good story is. But as one told me, 'The industry
we currently work in is not journalism, it's politics'."
Fear of violence is also a constant in the lives of Cambodian journalists. "All
journalists are afraid of violence. . . many articles do not get written out of fear,"
The newspaper editor, whose publication is considered to be pro-CPP, said he and
his staff have received threats.
He admitted to using a pseudonym to conceal his identity and said many other editors
and reporters do likewise.
"You can attack with your pen, but some people only know how to attack with
violence," Kanharith agreed.
Many journalists have been threatened, and others injured or killed; newspaper offices
have also been attacked.
After villagers trashed the office of the Sereipheap Thmei newspaper in 1995, then
co-premier Hun Sen said they "were not wrong in their action" and offered
vehicles to help them get to Phnom Penh.
"[Violence] affects the work of all journalists in Cambodia. The fact that none
of the previous cases of murders, injuries or threats have been taken seriously by
the government. . . only heightens the tension," Adams said.
On World Press Freedom Day, the UN appealed to governments "to renew their commitment
to guarantee the safety of journalists. . . whenever one journalist suffers violence,
intimidation or arbitrary detention because of his or her commitment to conveying
the truth, all citizens are robbed of the right to think and act according to their
The statement was signed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, UN High Commissioner
for Human Rights Mary Robinson, and UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor.