C AMBODIA'S young free press will face tough government pressures - including prison - under the new Press Law the Council of Ministers approved on Nov 4.
If finally adopted by the National Assembly, say journalists, media organizations and human right groups, the law will empower the state to throw journalists in prison for writing critical views of the government.
"This law is not made to protect freedom of the press," Non Noun, publisher and editor of the Khmer-language Morning News told the Post.
"The government will not accept any more criticism and is allowing itself to exercise unlimited power. This law only provides terms such as prison and chains in order to clamp down on journalists," he added.
A statement issued by the Khmer Journalists Association on Nov 9 lamented that the life of Khmer journalism is being threatened and political prisoners will return to Cambodia as a result of the new law.
Journalists, press associations and human right organizations have voiced concern over the climate of repression journalists in this country may face.
If found guilty, journalists can face up to three years behind bars - sentences similar as those for other criminal offenses.
Some Khmer newspapers, which started publication with as little capital as two million riel [$800], could well fold up if slapped with fines passed under the new law, ranging from one million riel [$400] to ten million riel [$4,000].
Article 12 of the law states that the press is prohibited "to publish... information which is false, fabricated, falsified or untruthfully attributed to a third person in bad faith and with malicious intent which causes... turmoil to public security or affects the secrecy of the military so that it causes turmoil to public security or impacts the territorial integrity... peace and good relations with other countries."
If guilty, an editor could be jailed for six months and fined up to ten million riel.
Another clause states that any journalist "causing humiliation or degradation to... public authorities... will be penalized by a prison term of three to 18 months and/or fines of one to ten million riel.
"Under this circumstance, only government newspapers can exist because they write what they are told to write," Pin Samkhon, president of the Khmer Journalists Association said.
"Then there is no need to have the association [of journalists]," he said, adding the association's main goals were to safeguard freedom and upgrade professionalism of journalists.
He said once the law was in force it would pressure not only the media but other "legislative and executive" institutions.
Members in those institutions might be forced to stop giving opposing opinions, and the Judiciary could also lose its independent power, he said.
Critics pointed to the law's "ambiguous" clauses concerning alleged threats to national and public security.
They said the law would allow the government to systematically prosecute and imprison journalists who write analyses and express views contradicting government policy.
"This law could be used to punish almost any critical reporting on the government," Sidney Jones, executive director of Human Right Watch/Asia, said in a statement released on Nov10.
"In view of the government's recent actions to intimidate reporters, and the unsolved murders of several journalists, this proposal [the press law] should be a cause for grave concern," he added.
In a democratic society, false or other unlawful statements should be punished by fines and damages paid to the injured party, not by jail, said a statement jointly released by local human right groups.
Critics also viewed the law as running contrary to the spirit of the Cambodian constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Cambodia is a signatory.
They urged that the law be withdrawn from the National Assembly and amended, so to ensure freedom and responsibility of the press.
Expressing dissatisfaction with the draft, the KJA demanded that the Royal Government reconsider its decision and "not use a few irresponsible print media as an excuse to subdue the whole journalism in the Kingdom of Cambodia."
Rasady Om, chairman of the National Assembly's Commission on International Cooperation and Information, said that the law has not yet been submitted to his commission.
He refused to comment on whether that was because, in the face of increasing criticism, the government had decided to delay submitting the law to the parliament.
However, he said: "We will take all concerns and opinion from the public into consideration. It is our duty to make that law, as well as other laws, more appropriately democratic."