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
The human rights groups ADHOC, LICAHDO and Vigilance took part and
the president of Vigilance, Phuong Sith, organized the event.
"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."
of the press have formed a pressure group to lobby for a say in forming the new
According to many Cambodian and international human rights
observers, the law now in force, although not fully enforced, is
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
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.
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
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
"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."
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.
whether it is connected to the military preparations against the Khmer Rouge and
reports filtering into Phnom Penh about the conscription of new government
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
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."
press has been increasingly insistent in their reporting about corruption in the
Some observers believe the publication of the press law was
in part a reaction against the press, prompted by the media itself.
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.
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."