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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Subdecree seen as threat to press freedom

Subdecree seen as threat to press freedom

THE Ministry of Information has approved a subdecree that both journalists and legal

experts say will infringe on constitutionally guaranteed press freedom.

The subdecree specifies professional requirements for prospective newspaper and magazine

publishers. It also obliges publishers to submit documents to the Ministry detailing

the publications' organizational structure and editorial focus - politics, economics,

sports or culture.

In addition, the subdecree introduces a mandatory licensing system requiring newspapers

to renew their licenses annually and magazines every two years. Granting of licenses

depends on publishers providing a list of specific information about the publication.

When the press law was passed in 1995, the National Assembly purposely deleted a

licensing provision.

The subdecree's attempt to qualify Article 12 of the 1995 press law, which makes

it a crime for journalists to publish information "which may affect national

security or political stability", is also seen as a problem.

Article 12 has always caused concern that a lack of definition of "national

security" and "political stability" created the potential for misuse

and intimidation.

Although the subdecree was intended to define the terms, journalists and lawyers

say the definitions remain unclear. Additionally, they say, the subdecree introduces

new provisions that may intimidate many journalists.

"I think this subdecree is not so good; it limits the freedom of press and it

will put a lot more pressure on Cambodian journalists," says Um Sarin, chairman

of the Cambodian Association for Protection of Journalists.

Sarin is backed by a human rights lawyer who specializes in Asian press issues. He

agrees that some provisions in the subdecree can lead to self-censorship.

"These are exactly the kind of provisions that have been misused in other Asian

countries," the lawyer said.

The Secretary of State for the Ministry of Information, Khieu Kanharith, denies that

the proposed licensing system will infringe on press freedom.

"The subdecree does not allow us to prohibit a newspaper from publishing,"

he says. "Besides, the renewal of the licenses will happen automatically."

Kanharith is not concerned about the subdecree's imposition of requirements that

a new publisher must be 25 years old, in possession of 2.5 million riels and a formal

mental health certificate.

The subdecree also imposes new educational requirements on prospective publishers.

Publishers must have a high school diploma and a year of journalism education or

a university degree and three months of journalism education and work experience,

or a certified three years of work experience in journalism or five years in photography.

"This is the proposal from the journalists themselves," Kanharith says.

"I never get complaints about this point from Cambodian journalists, only from

outsiders."

Nevertheless, Sarin has misgivings about the professional requirements.

"There is no need to ask for professional requirements," he says. "Many

people in Cambodia do not have time to go to school and we should not limit the people

who can be a publisher".

The provisions are on shaky legal ground. Normally subdecrees approved by the Council

of Ministers can only elaborate on laws passed by the National Assembly.

However, Kanharith prefers to introduce the new provisions in a subdecree.

"It is easier to revise if we want to change something," he said. "And

if the journalists are opposed to the requirement of qualifications, we will just

take it out."

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