A day after a prominent journalist was slapped with an arrest warrant, government officials pulled out all the stops yesterday to tout what they insisted was Cambodia’s free and unfettered press.
World Press Freedom Day was overshadowed by two international reports last week that said Cambodia had dipped in its press freedom rankings, but according to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Kingdom’s plethora of media outlets is evidence enough that it is a safe haven.
In the latest glossy video from the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee, Hun Sen further implies that he is not a dictator because the country has gone from producing two newspapers to some 800 media outlets.
“Thus, how could a man be considered a dictator for having developed a state this far?” he said.
Yet the video, the latest in a string of heavy-handed human rights messages – including one that instructed people not to “use rights in an anarchic way” and confused Singapore for Libya – failed to mention that quantity does not equal quality, said Cambodian Institute for Media Studies Director Moeun Chhean Nariddh.
“The number of media outlets is not really an indication It is actually about the content, the kind of stories, and whether those stories can be produced freely, or if there are any kind of restrictions,” he said, adding that many outlets were owned by government sympathisers.
“The health of the press is the indication of democracy . . . For democracy to flourish, we want to see pluralistic, diversified media outlets.”
Chhean Nariddh pointed to the case of Radio Free Asia reporter Chun Chanboth who was slapped with an arrest warrant on Tuesday over allegations he concealed his identity to interview a politically sensitive prisoner – as a prime example of the restrictions journalists sometimes suffered. Chanboth left the country before the warrant was issued, and is now in the US.
“For a free press, we want freedom to exercise our rights, including going undercover to report the truth – this should also be protected by the law,” he said, adding it was ethically sound for journalists to disguise themselves if a story benefitted the general public.
But Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, while espousing the government’s commitments to press freedom, said there was a firm line journalists should not cross.
“If they go in to [investigate] a gang group, they have to be disguised for safety and to get information, but they cannot [use] a disguise with the authorities,” he said. “When we disguise ourselves with the authorities, it means we are cheating . . . There is a difference.”
Kanharith’s comments follow analysts’ concerns that the incident was a heavy-handed escalation of efforts to discourage the media from covering certain politically sensitive topics ahead of elections.
Citing Chanboth’s arrest warrant, one Phnom Penh journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, said they felt the press would be the latest target in a series of attacks on democratic institutions by the government.
“So far, they put opposition officials in jail, and then the NGO workers, and now, they target journalists,” he said. “That’s why we have to be careful in reporting . . . It is a restriction on journalists who try to tell the truth.”
“If you look [on the surface], it seems like journalists have a lot of freedom, but in reality, there is not much. It is only freedom to those who support the government.”
Some media organisations, however, said they didn’t feel government pressure. Leang Delux, founder of Thmey Thmey online news, said his institution was not threatened. “We are working with professionalism and ethics . . . [so] we have nothing to worry about,” Delux said.
Before reporting sensitive news stories, he said, the outlet evaluates the accuracy of their sources. “We discuss at the beginning if the story should be reported or not, or how deep it should be, or what angle [to take], so when we have gone through that process, the article will not be a problem,” he said.
Nonetheless, Edgardo Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance in Bangkok, said the arrest warrant is a warning shot. “Cambodia[n] journalists have always been under tremendous pressure by the government to prevent them from being critical and independent.”
Additional reporting by Ananth Baliga and Chhay Channyda