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Fears about the power of new media group

Fears about the power of new media group

F OREIGN journalists who write stories critical of Cambodia will be asked to explain

themselves to a government that appears increasingly anxious about its international

image.

A newly formed "media group" will, among other things, ask foreign journalists

to identify their sources used to write critical news reports, Information Minister

Ieng Mouly said.

The three-man "media group" is headed by Information Under-Secretary Khieu

Kanharith. Other members are the under-secretaries for the Ministries of National

Defense, Ek Sereywath, and Finance, Sun Chanthol.

A long-time human rights advocate, who asked not to be named, said: "This is

threatening, it's intimidation... the whole thing is to make you afraid to publish

controversial information. There is no other purpose."

The news about the formation of the group came during the same week that First Prime

Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh called for self-regulation within the media so

the Government did not have to step in to control it.

Khmer Journalist Association (KJA) President Pin Samkhon called the gist of Ranariddh's

speech and the news of the media group "a contradiction."

"If this group was trying to upgrade the profession it would be good, but not

to oppose opinion... this is not the solution," Samkhon said.

Others however say that many countries had similar executive watchdog groups; but

many observers are still worried about the group's powers and how they would be used.

Mouly said the group may ask editors what sources were used for stories that "were

not well founded or were against the interests of the country."

Mouly confirmed that the group would "react" to stories from "mainly

the international agencies first... AFP, Reuters, UPI..."

Critical television and radio stories will also be targeted and "in due course

the likes of the Phnom Penh Post, the Cambodia Daily, and the Cambodia Times because

they also publish in English. [The group] is mainly [concerned about] the foreign

agents."

Mouly said the group was formed within a "task force" of ministerial chiefs

who meet each week to exchange information about national security and international

relations. This task force needed its own group to "coordinate the reaction

from mainstream ministries... against [critical] press reports and information [going]

outside the country."

If news stories were believed to be wrong or unfair the group would "issue a

clarification" after discussion with the editors, either in writing, over the

phone or face to face, Mouly said.

The group could not sue or recommend court action, he said - that power remains jointly

with the Ministries of Information and Interior.

When asked what would happen if a story was critical, yet provably true, Mouly said:

"[Editors] will still be asked to explain how they feel if this is true... what

kinds of sources of information were used.

"What [the group] wants to know is on what basis [editors] say it's correct...

to affirm it is correct and ask for an explanation."

The press law gives journalists the right to protect their sources of information,

and Mouly said: "I think you are right to protect your sources, there is no

doubt. [The group] will try to ask your source but you have your rights also to protect.

[The group] will try to explain about what they believe and what they feel is true

from their side of the story."

Mouly denied that the group could be seen as threatening. Chanthol said the group

was only concerned about Cambodia's "image".

Human Rights workers interviewed by the Post said that the group's existence was

"the worst kind of pressure that the government can bring."

"This is a police state mentality," said one.

"If you have laws that allow papers to print the truth you should encourage

it. If the truth is unpleasant then [the government] should fix the problem,"

he said.

Observers doubted too that the group would limit itself to dealing with just the

international press. "If you were a Khmer editor and got a phone call from the

under-secretary of state for Defense, how would you feel? This is designed to be

intimidatory," said one.

Meanwhile, Ranariddh's Feb 14 speech to ministerial information officers, read in

his absence by Chief of Cabinet Ly Thuch, hinted at further tightening of press freedoms

if the media did not become more professional.

"Though the government can confirm that it would not revert to the past, in

so far as democracy and freedom of expression are concerned, there are limits to

this," he said. He said that Cambodia was more liberal toward the media than

any other government in the region.

However, the national achievements made to date must not be destroyed by "blatant

irresponsibility and indiscipline," Ranariddh said.

He said the media and government had to share responsibility for giving the public

accurate information. That level of trust could best be achieved by mutual respect

and support, "not constant confrontation."

"Misinformation," he said, "can very well affect our national image

and the economic and legal credibility of our country."

More and better training, in addition to self-regulation and a working partnership

with the government, was urgently needed, he said.

Samkhon agreed for the need of self-regulation with codes of ethics and conduct,

but this too, he said, was hampered by inexperience and lack of training.

The KJA's ethics committee was largely new following the association's Jan 5 elections

"and we need more training... and we have no power," Samkhon said. He said

that soon the ethics committee "will be recognized by all the media."

On at least one occasion an editor has been told by the committee to correct a story.

Editor So Naro's story on the Sirivudh assassination plot was censured as unethical,

but Samkhon said the committee had no other "real powers" of censure.

Notices were published in newspapers last year telling readers how they could complain

to the committee about stories but still "people did not understand how to fight

against the press," Samkhon said.

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