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Freedom of Speech: responsibility and other 'right words'

Freedom of Speech: responsibility and other 'right words'

Ethics, freedom and responsibility were the key words debated during a seminar on

journalistic ethics organized by UNESCO and AIDAB between Nov. 23-25 at the Foreign

Correspondent's Club of Cambodia.

The three-day seminar invited government ministers and local and foreign correspondents

to exchange experiences about press freedom and discuss responsibility of the press.

Cambodia's current press war, which has seen some newspapers printing photographs

of scantily-clad women in an apparent bid to boost sales, has raised a number of

questions over ethics.

Corruption, too, is proving a major issue. More than one government official has

complained at the number of letters printed in the papers protesting the practice

and one senior official described the attitude of some editors in this matter as

"too free".

The practice of running photographs of people who died violently has also been called

sensational and there are many questions left unanswered over accuracy and over speculation

versus fact.

"One thing which can lead [Khmer] journalists to commit mistakes is pride,"

Pen Samitthy, the editor of Cambodia's only Khmer-language daily, Reasmey Kampuchea,

told the panel on Nov. 24.

"They often allow personal influence into their reporting and conclude articles

with their own opinions," he pointed out.

Among Cambodian journalists, Sametthy is something of a doyen with 13 years in the

profession, including a stint as editor of the Phnom Penh newspaper, published by

the municipality.

He believes journalistic ethics have worsened along with declining morals among society

and the general rush for materialistic gain.

Samitthy, along with Chris Warren, head of Australia's Media, Entertainment and Arts

Alliance (MEAA), was skeptical about the call for more "responsibility"

made by Information Minister Ieng Mouly, who gave the keynote address.

They both agreed journalists do not have the "responsibility" to encourage

or discourage foreign investment and that it should only be a matter of government

policy.

In recent weeks, photographs featuring grizzly deaths have disappeared from the front

page of Reasmey Kampuchea but Samitthy claims it has cost his newspaper lost sales

of around 5,000 copies per edition.

Although Cambodia's new constitution guarantees freedom of speech, few Khmer journalists

have even the vaguest idea how far they can go and whether their interests, and those

of their readers, will be protected.

"Of course, freedom and responsibility [of the press] are two things parallel,"

said Pin Samkhon, publisher of Khmer Ekareach (Independent Khmer). "We should

know the limits of our freedom and understand our role in society."

He went on to call for safeguards and said: "If the limit of our freedom is

narrow, we will demand it be expanded and we need the government to be our nose and

eyes because it is the legal representative of the society," he told the Post.

Cambodian journalists are now planning to formulate a code of ethics and to form

a journalists' association. The Ministry of Information said it supported the idea

and promised not to interfere but would maintain a neutral position.

Khieu Kannarith, Mouly's deputy, and former information minister himself and former

editor of Kampuchea, said: "The challenge [for the leaders] is whether the mass

media will strengthen or weaken their power because they don't really understand

the mass media's role of informing, educating and entertaining the public."

As a parting shot, he offered some sensible advise to Cambodia's press corp: "To

be a journalist you must dare to walk against the current. If it swirls, you must

be sensible of the dangers and walk by the side."

And as Ieng Mouly told the crowd, the government will play an "instructive role"

and it will be able to advise on "what is right and what is wrong".

On the one hand, he steadfastly promised freedom of the press and on the other emphasized

"responsibility".

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