Meagre salaries amid a culture of corruption was the key factor as to why Cambodian journalists interviewed in a recent survey accepted bribes and often failed to act ethically in their jobs, according to new research.

The study, published in the Journal of Media Ethics earlier this month, interviewed 29 journalists and 25 trainers and donors to media programs to examine journalism ethics in the Kingdom.

“In terms of barriers to practicing journalism ethically, low pay, poor work environments, and general societal corruption all featured strongly,” the report said. “Among journalists, low pay was seen as the biggest obstacle to ethical behavior.”

“Journalists cited a high incidence of self-censorship, fear, cultural incompatibility [and] management glass ceilings [as barriers] much more than facilitators and donors.”

The report nearly coincides with the latest press freedom rankings, which saw Cambodia drop 10 places in the annual index from Reporters Without Borders, down to 142 globally.

The majority of journalists interviewed in the survey cited the “idea that journalism ethics is a primarily Western-oriented concept that does not work effectively in a Cambodian context”.

The “lack of clarity” on that topic could be seen in the “acceptability of taking bribes”, the report said, with one journalist describing it as akin to monks receiving alms.

“If the people want to get the monk to come and make prayers and bless the house they will also give them a small gift or a present. This is not corruption,” one journalist said.

Another suggested it was ethically sound to accept money willingly offered, but it was problematic if a journalist asked for money.

With Cambodian journalists routinely paid between $200 and $300 per month, it was no surprise they accepted bribes, if they even perceived them as bribes at all, according to Huy Vannak, director of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia and an Interior Ministry official.

“I think it is a matter of ethics or food – which one are you going to take first?” he said.

Where such transactions take place, it is unlikely a journalist would write a “negative story”, he said, adding that ethical standards needed to improve in the industry along with salaries.

Muyhong Chan, a lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Department of Media and Communications and a former Post reporter, said her students were properly taught ethical standards, and said bribes were unacceptable and outlets must be transparent when an article is paid for by an advertiser.

“Regardless of where the concept of value of ethical journalism comes from, journalists should maintain their independence from political influence, otherwise the media do not hold their value or power anymore,” she said.

Vannak added journalists had a “moral” imperative to balance the positive with the negative and should shun fake news.

“War starts from words, not just from the gun,” he said.