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Online journalists ignoring ethical boundaries, say traditional reporters

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Two reporters interview a subject for a story about her attempted suicide by jumping into the Tonle Sap from Chroy Changvar bridge on July 25. FB

Online journalists ignoring ethical boundaries, say traditional reporters

Bun Lim recalled a car accident he had a few years back. He crashed into a lamppost and tumbled into a canal late one night. Two online journalists from the same organisation appeared at the scene, demanding money to make up for the damage. He refused to pay, as he felt like they were suggesting that the payment would mean they would not report the accident, showing a clear lack of journalistic ethics.

“Two online journalists came and tried to stop me from winching my car out of the canal. They demanded $1,200 for the damage to the lamppost, but I would not pay them. The reason I refused to pay they were not trying to repair the pole, but wanted a bribe so they would not broadcast from the scene. They called the police to the scene,” Lim told The Post.

Another example of the unethical, and highly illegal, practice of journalism was an extortion case in June last year, when five online news reporters and a mototaxi driver were charged for extorting money from a coffee shop owner who was running an illegal gambling operation in Mok Kampoul district’s Prek Anhchanh commune of Kandal province

The reporters – from little-known media outlet Bati News – and the mototaxi driver were charged with extortion under articles 372 and 373 of the Criminal Code. The coffee shop owner was charged with running an illegal gambling operation under Article 5 of Law on the Suppression of Gambling.

These are just two examples of unethical journalistic practices, although it cannot be denied that some journalists have carried out positive actions while going about their business.

According to professional journalists, this kind of unprofessional unethical act is why journalism sometimes has a poor image in the minds of the public. Journalists are often thought of as corrupt and acting beyond their duties.

Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ) president Pen Bona said: “This is why we strive to make sure all journalists understand their roles and professional ethics. As journalists, we have no right to interfere with the authorities.”

“This kind of activity is what Prime Minister Hun Sen warned journalists about. We cannot violate people’s rights, exploit a difficult situation, or distort the truth,” he added.

There are currently more than 2,100 media units registered with the Ministry of Information, of which 845 broadcast online, according to Meas Sophorn, under-secretary of state and spokesman of the ministry.

Sophorn said that in order to register with the ministry, each unit must meet certain criteria, including providing an application for a business venture, business contract, business owner profile, business registration letter and other relevant documents.

Under the current laws on information, Cambodians and foreigners can practice journalism without any qualifications in the field.

“They must adhere to the laws and regulations in force and must respect the ethics of the profession. They should strive to improve the profession,” he said.

He added that the ministry organised regular seminars and training courses so journalists understood the laws and regulations related to their work, as well as the roles, duties and professional ethics of journalism.

Industry veteran shares insight

Pheng Sokha, manager of the external reporter’s day and night shifts at Hang Meas TV, has served as a reporter since she finished grade 12. She described the duties of her 10-member team, focusing on their roles and obligations.

Sokha said her team was deployed in two shifts. Some of them were in groups and some were working alone, such as at police stations.

They received emergency news and information via walkie-talkies – especially the reporters on the night shift. They are always in a high state of readiness with laptops, books, pens, cameras and phones ready to go in their backpacks.

“Although I no longer report in person, 10 years ago my husband and I used to write stories at the scene. This means I understand the process and how to ensure their well-being,” the 43-year-old told The Post.

With years of experience working in the media since 1999, she described some of the challenges that all reporters faced, whether working the day or night shift.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Online reporters interviewing a woman who was allegedly raped in the capital’s Kambol district on July 24. FB

She said that their salaries were often low, and that many of them supplemented their income with other jobs. The main thing they must remember to do is adhere to professionalism and ethics, as well as the company’s values.

“I admit that I have seen and heard about some journalists asking for people’s money. Those of us who are professionals would never dare to do such a thing. I am aware of some online content makers who create their own web pages and Facebook groups, and regularly do that sort of thing. Basically, each journalist is different, so we should not all be tarred with same brush,” she said.

“For us, the salary is not high, but we respect the profession. If we are offered $10-20, we will accept it, but we will never write a one-sided article. My team often reports to me that unpaid online journalists do this regularly. I tell them it’s their business, not ours,” she added.

“Most days they don’t think about the work they are doing, they are just looking for ways to make money. Even though we are journalists who are often reporting news from the same scene, what they are doing is their business, the important thing is that we don’t behave like them,” she concluded.

Sokha said that intervening in a situation is unethical and unprofessional. Sometimes they try to twist their reporting or use it as a threat to demand money. They might ask for money from the person causing a problem, or even from the police and authorities, depending on the situation.

She added that besides asking for money, some journalists take pictures of the victims of abuse, or release derogatory information.

Protecting the rights of victims

Bona said protecting the identity of victims was especially important. Recently, the CCJ, in collaboration with the information ministry and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, developed a code of conduct that was widely disseminated so that reporters would understand how to report on violence against women.

“The key is to make sure that your reporting does not result in making the subject a victim twice. If someone is the victim of rape or violence, she must not be embarrassed or have her reputation spoiled by the media. Journalists need to be aware of this and to avoid subjecting a victim to public review,” he said.

Bona added that a large number of journalists in the online sector were new to the industry, and might not have received professional training. In order for the media to be respected, all journalists must first respect professional ethics.

Both the manager from Hang Meas TV and the president of the journalist’s club acknowledged that the image of journalists had been dragged down by a handful of online journalists.

“The information ministry should have special measures in place for online reporters so they don’t have such a negative impact on the rest of us. Nearly every day, when people find out we are journalists, we are abused or spat on,” Sokha added.

She said the information ministry should take action and inform all journalists – both professional and unprofessional – to stop doing things that harm the profession, like writing biased criticism.

Asked if some people appeared to not appreciate journalists, Bona: “That’s right! It damages the dignity of the press when some reporters misbehave. People assume that all journalists are disgusting and they are afraid to talk to us.”

“I want to appeal to all who hold a press card. Please practice responsible journalism and adhere to professional ethics. Doing the right thing means we will no longer be condemned by the public,” he added.

Chuon Bun Roeung, director of the TNB TV news brand, acknowledged the harm done to the industry’s reputation by the many online journalists who exceeded their professional limits.

Roeung, who broadcasts breaking news from the scene wherever possible, told The Post about the professional abuse: “Absolutely! Some journalists are too much. Online reporters cross the line far too often. Many people are talking about this issue.”

The information ministry’s Sophorn said the ministry had always called on journalists to abide by the laws, regulations and professional ethics of journalism.

“In the event that a journalist commits an illegal act, they will be held accountable under the law. There are no exceptions and no excuses for breaking the law, and no one profession should receive special treatment,” he said.

“The ministry is always reminding journalists about the recommendations made by the prime minister ‘Do not violate the rights of others and do not distort the truth’,” Sophorn said.

He also reminded journalists that they should not act as judges nor decide the guilt of anyone. That is a job for the authorities, he said.

Live online reporting is not unethical so long as they adhere to professionalism, respect the law and the rights of private citizens, and are working for the public good.

Two good examples are when they pursue bag snatchers or prevent suicidal people from leaping to their deaths off the Chroy Changvar bridge.

Another way in which they provide a valuable public service is when they respond to traffic accidents – they are often the first on the scene, and can summon ambulances and let the relatives of the victims know what has happened.

A recent case was an August 9 accident. Two motorcycles crashed head on and both riders were knocked unconscious. Online reporting meant that the two men were identified quickly and their relatives notified.

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