Search form

Login - Register | FOLLOW US ON

Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The Press: news, views and abuse

The Press: news, views and abuse

W ild and undisciplined, or the unfair target of government sanctions? As the

Press Law is due to go before lawmakers this week, Jason Barber and
Heng Sok Chheng examine the rivalries inside the press, and talk to some

key players.

WHEN a Khmer newspaper recently published a leaked

government memorandum, complete with one of the Prime Ministers' signatures, not

all Khmer journalists considered it a scoop.

"What can we do about this,

to punish them?" demanded one editor, aghast at the printing of a government

document without permission.

His view highlights that Cambodia's

burgeoning free press is by no means a united one. Freedom of the press - and

good journalism - has widely different meanings to those in the fourth

estate.

"There are people who agree with us. There are another group of

people who say... if you write something bad, you must go to jail," the Khmer

Journalists Association president Pin Samkhon says of his own members.

While such differences of opinion may be inevitable and even healthy,

they illustrate deep divisions in the foundations of the free press.

They

also make it harder to reach a consensus on how to improve journalism standards

and ethics. Or, as Samkhon puts it, how to define "what is a journalist, a real

journalist".

While many in the industry believe slander and defamation

laws are the way to make journalists "clean up their act", others openly welcome

the government's proposed press law.

"The draft press law is good,"

declares Chheav Sy Pha of Koh Santepheap, a daily newspaper which concentrates

on crime news, and a KJA member.

"I want newspapers to be responsible. I

support the press law."

His disdain for some newspapers is implicit,

though he declines to comment on them, saying: "That's their own

business."

In its pages, however, Koh Santepheap isn't immune to throwing

criticism at other papers. It is currently being sued by Sereipheap Thmei (New

Liberty News) for publishing an attack on one of its articles.

Rasmei

Kampuchea, Cambodia's biggest Khmer newspaper, is also less than concerned by

the draft law. Editor-in-Chief Pen Samitthy says he initially opposed the law

because he thought it was anti-democratic, but later decided "that journalists

do not have enough professionalism [and] we must have the press law".

"If

we don't have the law... people will still use newspapers to pursue their

[political] aims, and step by step journalists will have no position in

society."

Samitthy adds that he opposes the jailing of journalists, as

the current draft of the law allows.

In reality, it has been a minority

of Khmer newspapers who have actively and adamantly opposed the press

law.

The ones with relatively good government relations presumably

consider they have little to fear. They are perhaps not displeased at the

prospect of some, anti-government, competitors facing harsh

penalties.

Papers like Samleng Yuvachon Khmer (Voice of Khmer Youth),

which have faced suspensions, arrests or outright intimidation, are the most

worried.

Citing a lack of judicial independence in Cambodia, they fear

the government will use the law's jail and financial penalties to declare open

season on them.

The KJA's Pin Samkhon says all its members, even

government newspapers, stuck by an internal resolution that they would publish

articles about press freedoms.

But privately some editors take a vastly

different line, and talk of jailing journalists and so on.

"I explain to

them that you must not say things like that. That the KJA must support freedom

of expression," says Samkhon.

The KJA - which has 29 newspaper members,

out of more than 40 Khmer publications in Cambodia - also faces discord from

outside.

Five of the more anti-government newspapers, including Voice of

Khmer Youth, are forming their own Independent Journalists

Association.

Rasmei Kampuchea, meanwhile, recently withdrew its KJA

membership because of its owners' belief that it should not be involved with

"matters of policy". Editor-in-Chief Pen Samitthy says he "may" retain personal

KJA membership, but urges Samkhon not to do things which divide the

industry.

Samitthy is critical of the KJA's decision to conduct public

opinion polls, one of which found dissident MP Sam Rainsy was Cambodia's most

popular politician.

He also complains that Samkhon - who also runs his

own newspaper, Khmer Ekareach (Khmer Independent) - does not keep his private

business strictly separate from the KJA.

There are also murmurings about

the outside funding given to the KJA and, as Samitthy says, that "many people

are in the association for the money".

Some criticism of the KJA may be

due to personality disputes and rivalries with the high-profile Samkhon, a

former French-trained teacher turned journalist, who has faced fierce criticism

in the pages of some newspapers.

"They say...that I am a pig, that I come

from outside Cambodia, and I work for politics," he says. "Not yet have they

said I am corrupt - I think that will come later."

He disputes a common

claim that he is pro-government. But he believes government funding of the KJA

is necessary for its survival, and acknowledges accepting a two million riel

donation from First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh.

"I don't take the

government as a friend or an enemy. I need the government and I think the

government needs me, to build something... You have to explain what you want in

this [press] law. You cannot attack all the time."

A key approach of the

KJA is to encourage professionalism and responsibility. It runs journalist

training seminars and wants to establish an ethics committee to rule on

complaints against members.

Foreign donars are encouraging such

activities. The US government, through the Asia Foundation, has provided KJA

funding including the salary of American journalist, Mike Fowler, to work as an

adviser.

The French, Danish and Australian governments have put money

into a new Cambodia Communication Institute, which also offers media

training.

Criticisms leveled at some newspapers include that they mix

opinion and "news", both often without any facts, in articles.

Abusive,

antagonistic language - of the "fat pig, dirty rat, thief" variety, as one

journalist puts it - remains a prime concern.

But Pin Samkhon warns that

the press will only change as quickly as the Cambodian public's expectations of

it do. "Many people are not ready to read stories without opinion in them. The

[more abusive] papers think they are more professional because more people read

them."

Mike Fowler, the KJA's American adviser, agrees that some

reporting can be "artless and offensive" but says slander laws, not

imprisonment, are the way to deal with that.

Bad reporting does not

justify a general press crack-down, he says, adding: "It may be foolish and

certainly unprofessional but it falls under the umbrella of the free press."

0

Comments

Please, login or register to post a comment

Latest Video

Turkish Embassy calls for closure of Zaman schools

With an attempted coup against the government of President Recep Erdogan quashed only days ago and more than 7,000 alleged conspirators now under arrest, the Turkish ambassador to Cambodia yesterday pressed the govern

CNRP lawmakers beaten

Two opposition lawmakers, Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sakphea were beaten unconscious during protests in Phnom Penh, as over a thousand protesters descended upon the National Assembly.

Student authors discuss "The Cambodian Economy"

Student authors discuss "The Cambodian Economy"

Students at Phnom Penh's Liger Learning Center have written and published a new book, "The Cambodian Economy".