Cambodia's press laws from the old SOC regime are being dusted down and reviewed
as the country's new democratic government starts to come to terms with the reality
of a free press.
The country's lively media, with more than 15 Khmer and foreign language papers,
has already raised the government's wrath over a number of issues since the election.
Articles on corruption and alleged government ineptitude are known to have irritated
Last month the information ministry warned the Khmer-language edition of the Cambodia
Times to cease publishing photographs of scantily-clad women because it offended
Khmer culture, or face legal action.
And at least one newspaper received a confused request from the ministry to fill
in a form promising not to criticize the government or portray the country in a negative
In its effort to deal with a free media, the new government has been considering
a number of options.
Chief amongst them appears to be a SOC press law hastily passed in April 1992, but
quickly shelved after then-Prince Sihanouk forced the issue at an early May SNC meeting.
SOC Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed that any laws that contravene the letter or spirit
of the peace accords would be scrapped with the result that the SOC press law was
immediately declared void.
As a result of Sihanouk's intervention, UNTAC issued more liberal media rules which
were generally adhered to during the UN's presence.
The shelved, and now up for discussion. SOC press law includes:
- Fines of up to one million riel for publishing "ill-intentioned" and
"destructive criticism" with suspension of publication for up to three
months in the first instance.
- Newspaper editors required to publish prominently on the front-page "any
refutation or correction sent by the civil or military authorities".
- Controls over the distribution and sale of imported publications requiring prior
authorization from the Ministry of Information.
- No newspaper proprietor to publish in Cambodia unless he/she holds Cambodian
nationality and has never been sentenced for a "common criminal offense".
Violators face fines of up to three million riel and three to six months in jail,
- Foreigners are also "forbidden to engage in the occupation of printing for
- Permission to publish may be withdrawn at any time and proprietors can be fined
four million riel, imprisoned for one year and their assets seized for contravening
certain sections of the media law.
Khieu Kanharith, secretary of state at the Information Ministry, said the new
government has begun examining all existing laws and that the press laws are just
"The law asks our newspapers to be more responsive before society...because
there has been a lot of 'blackmail' in newspapers," he said.
Commenting on the available options, Information Minister Ieng Mouly told the Post:
"I will study now to determine which would be better and which provisions will
In an apparent effort to ally concerns that no option had been finalized he said:
" I think the UNTAC law is better."
However, it is believed all existing legislation was kept on the statute books.
The country's new Constitution is rather vague on the question of press freedom.
While full freedom of expression is acknowledged in Article 41, the same article
says "control of the media shall be in accordance with the law".
The right of expression is limited by the need to respect the unspecified notions
of "good morals and customs of society, public order and national security".
"We are going to have to watch this one very closely," said a senior international
human rights observer.
"Cambodia doesn't have much experience of how a free press should operate and
teething troubles are only to be expected but once a law is on the books it can be
applied in a variety of ways," he pointed out.
Some observers say elements within the government feel the need to sort out the media
issue before the current parliamentary session ends soon.
The question of foreign ownership concerns at least seven publications in Phnom Penh
- the Malaysian-owned Cambodia Times, which publishes English and Khmer-language
editions; the American-owned The Cambodia Daily ; the French-financed Le Mekong ;
LICADHO's La Voix du Cambodge; the Thai-owned Reasmey Kampuchea ; and the Phnom Penh
Post which is independently financed and owned by American nationals.
Fearing the new government might move to restrict the press, local journalists have
begun to take their first steps in forming a professional association, together with
a "free" code of conduct.
Only by regulating themselves can the local press hope to avoid government interference,
believes Hem Bun Chhouy, a reporter on Reasmey Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia).
"What we need now are ethics not press laws," he told a gathering of journalists
in Phnom Penh on Dec. 11.
"When there are press laws, it means that's it. Forget about newspapers,"
he said, waving a draft copy of journalistic ethics compiled by media students at
Phnom Penh University.
Growing concerns over restricted media freedom have hastened plans for a professional
code of conduct.
An initial stumbling block for the new association came over the choice of name.
It was finally agreed to call the group the Khmer Association of Free Journalists.
Its' aims include:
- Friendship and cooperation between national and international journalists,
- Upholding the rights and freedoms of the journalistic profession.
- Easing the flow of information.