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Press law under scrutiny

Concern over a new government press law prompted members of Khmer human rights

organizations and the Cambodian press to meet on Jan. 6 to discuss the

issue.

The human rights groups ADHOC, LICAHDO and Vigilance took part and

the president of Vigilance, Phuong Sith, organized the event.

Sith said:

"Freedom of the press is one of the most basic human rights and the

participation of journalists and human rights advocates in the writing of the

law is an essential element in restoring democracy to Cambodia."

Members

of the press have formed a pressure group to lobby for a say in forming the new

law.

According to many Cambodian and international human rights

observers, the law now in force, although not fully enforced, is

unconstitutional.

Human rights observers, along with members of both

local and foreign press, believe that much is at stake as without a free press,

they argue, it may be impossible for democracy to take hold in Cambodia.

Article 41 of the Cambodian Constitution says that the media will be

controlled "in accordance with the law" but a new law has not yet been

promulgated.

Information Minister Ieng Mouly has been asked to draft a

law regulating the press but according to Article 139 of the Constitution, until

a new law is written, previous laws remain in force.

The previous State

of Cambodia law has been described by one observer as "a nightmare, a repressive

instrument," and "completely against the constitution".

Sources say that

on December 13 last year the Council of Ministers agreed the old law passed in

April 1992 still applied.

Kassie Neou of the Cambodian Institute for

Human Rights said: "It favors one side more than the other." He said it does not

provide for equal protection before the law.

Speaking about the meeting

Kassie said: "This is the first time that Khmer non-governmental organizations

and members of the press have met at the same time, at the same place, at the

same level to discuss the same issue."

Not everyone agreed there should

be a new press law. Yu Boh, the editor of Proleung Khmer, argued for a code of

ethics, rather than a press law.

He argued in a free society there should

be no constraints on a free press.

The United States, Australia and

India, for example, do not have a press law, only a press code.

Kassie

believed a press law is necessary in order to protect the press. After the

meeting he said: "Our most important success was a movement toward consensus

that a press law was needed."

"Not all agreed initially. The experience

of many people leads them to believe that the law can only be oppressive. Some

Cambodians see law as an oppressive object, but in a democratic society law is a

safe-guarding device, it does not have to be, as some see it, an enemy," Kassie

added.

Pin Samkhon, the director of the newspaper Independent Khmer and

the president of the Cambodian Free Press Association, said he supports the

drafting of advice by the human rights groups but would prefer an ethical code

to a press law.

"As far as I know, a code of ethics would be more

stringent than a press law, but I would trust it more than a press law," he

said.

"We do not know these people in the government, we don't know

their ideas, we don't know what they will do."

Only two laws have been

re-activated since the Constitution was accepted. Along with the press law, a

stringent demonstration law has been re-instituted.

Kassie said: "My

worst fear is that the law we get will be a totalitarian law."

"Democracy

means the rule of law and equality before the law. Whatever law is passed should

guarantee equal protection," he added.

Human rights observers see the

reactivating of the old law as an ominous development.

Some wonder

whether it is connected to the military preparations against the Khmer Rouge and

reports filtering into Phnom Penh about the conscription of new government

soldiers.

As one observer put it: "With so many organic laws that

urgently need to be written and which have so far not been addressed, one can

rightfully be suspicious about the timing and the content of these two

laws."

Others think the situation reflects the growing pains that

accompany the spread of democracy.

One human rights worker said: "There

are many in the government who are simply not used to opposition or criticism.

Many in the government tend to be a little thin-skinned."

The Cambodian

press has been increasingly insistent in their reporting about corruption in the

government.

Some observers believe the publication of the press law was

in part a reaction against the press, prompted by the media itself.

Jason

Roberts, who worked for UNTAC as an analyst of Khmer news said the newspapers

"always seem to be dominated by stories of corruption in this ministry or that,

papers love to go on and on about it."

"Reporting is sometimes

irresponsible, rumors and conjectures are presented as fact and the personal

opinions of the writers are regularly injected in the article.

"It is

really no more than tabloid journalism, a kind of journalism common in both the

United States and Great Britain," said Roberts.

In reply to this kind of

criticism of the Cambodian press, Kassie said: "We are still learning. Anyone

who claims to be an expert is wrong, we are all learning from each other. If we

put our heads together we will have hope for Cambodia."

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