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'Palpable detoriation' of local press freedom: watchdog

'Palpable detoriation' of local press freedom: watchdog

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090122_03.jpg

FOR the Cambodian press, 2008 was a year of "palpable deterioration", according to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in its annual review of media in the region.

Photo by:
Tracey Shelton

Phouk Sopheap, a newspaper vendor on Street 51, at her newsstand.

The report, released Sunday, said tensions had escalated between the media and government following a series of threats to journalists during last July's general elections, casting doubt on the future of press freedom in Cambodia.

The group said the consolidation of power by the Cambodian People's Party has compromised the ability of opposition parties to prevent the passage of censorship laws.

While only a tiny fraction of Cambodians use the internet, the country's emerging blogging community, which is typically critical of the state, was vulnerable to being targeted by authorities, it said. It cited efforts by Cambodian officials to ban the online art of Cambodian-American artist Reahu, which depicts partially nude Apsara dancers, as an alarming sign of the government's inclinations towards internet material it finds objectionable.

Describing Cambodia's laws as "dubious" and courts as "weak", the watchdog group said the government's press laws had provisions "aimed at curtailing press freedom and hindering the work of journalists".

It said the ambiguous design of the laws, which "vaguely define offences deemed harmful to national security", ensured judges and authorities had the ability to unjustly prosecute members of the media.

The report comes in the wake of a storm of criticism against an audiovisual media law proposed by the Ministry of Information.

Local media blasted the proposal, the details of which have not been publicly disclosed, and said it would be used as a tool of state censorship against online material critical of the government.

But Information Minister Khieu Kanharith has claimed the draft law is widely misunderstood, insisting that it would regulate the platforms of radio, TV and print media, but not their content.

The bill, he said, pertained to licensing of radio and television networks and printing houses.

"Are they for profit, or non-profit? Do they have a board of members?" he explained.   

He also said the proposed legislation would not bear on the internet.

"The internet is not my area. You have nearly two million pages [online]. We don't even have the human resources to regulate it."

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BRENDAN BRADY

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