Women journalists in Cambodia are underrepresented in their profession, face pressures from family to stay out of the industry and are at risk of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a new study released on Thursday, coinciding with World Press Freedom Day.
The study, part of a larger project in Southeast Asia, was carried out by the Fojo Media Institute at Linnaeus University in Sweden. Researchers surveyed 131 journalists in Cambodia and held focus group discussions with 41 participants, including 23 women. The researchers found that women were underrepresented in newsrooms, especially in management positions, though there was evidence of the landscape shifting, albeit slightly.
According to the study, just over half of male respondents estimated that women made up one-quarter or less of the colleagues in their section, similar to responses from women.
“[A] key finding is that there is tremendous pressure on … women journalists from their family and friends because it is perceived to be a dangerous profession,” said Jaldeep Katwala, who helped carry out the research.
The effects of such a gender imbalance are far-reaching, said Ed Legaspi, executive director at the Southeast Asia Press Alliance, who said that his organisation does connect more with male journalists than female, and the women with whom they do connect are never in “key positions” in the media or journalist groups.
“This is unlike in other countries, like Myanmar and the Philippines where the number and role of women journalists are more prominent,” he said in an email. “Issues faced by . . . Cambodian women are an important part of the press freedom issues in Cambodia, as an indicator of pluralism which is [as] vital for press freedom as editorial independence and freedom of state intervention.”
The study also highlights the issue of sexual harassment for women journalists. Four women surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment, but in focus group discussions participants tended to be more open about sharing instances of harassment. “It is likely that the rate sexual harassment is much higher than indicated in our survey,” Fojo’s Katwala said.
The perceptions of sexual harassment were different from men to women, Katwala said. For example, participants were asked if a male supervisor locking himself in his office with a female staff member and making suggestive comments about how she could get a promotion qualifies as harassment.
Forty percent of women viewed that as sexual harassment, compared to just over a quarter of men. “A male-dominated profession will tend to also play down incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace, as this can have negative implications for the career of the woman journalists. So this deserves a more thorough inquiry, in order to promote safer working conditions,” Legaspi said.
Speaking at an event to launch the report, Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi took time to highlight the work of well-known female journalists, such as African-American investigative journalist Ida B Wells, and fellow American journalist Nellie Bly – both of whom worked in the 19th century. Kantha Phavi did not name any Cambodian journalists.
“Sorry that I do not mention a female journalist in Cambodia,” she said. “I tried to research, but I could not find one.”
Kantha Phavi also took issue with a finding in the study that her ministry is perceived as taking “very little action” on women’s issues in the media. As evidence of her ministry’s advocacy, she pointed to a statement made by the ministry last year after TV presenter Meas Rithy appeared to blame a woman for her rape, though they came more than a week later after the issue had sparked outrage.
“I don’t know how the researchers found this data, but I ask for a correction,” she said.
Last year, guidelines on reporting on domestic and sexual violence were released through the women’s affairs and information ministries.
The event also focused on the Kingdom’s shrinking independent media landscape, with Swedish Ambassador to Cambodia Maria Sargren saying it was with “regret” that she saw the media situation in Cambodia getting “worse”.
She pointed out last week’s World Press Freedom Index, in which Cambodia’s ranking slid down to 142 from 132 last year.
“While recognising the shortcomings of any index, this is an indication that in [the] eyes of many international observers, Cambodia has unfortunately been moving in the wrong direction,” she said.
The government last year shuttered more than two dozen radio frequencies, and the Cambodia Daily was forced to close after being handed a $6.3 million tax bill widely seen as politically motivated. Additionally, Radio Free Asia pulled its in-country operations in the midst of the crackdown, and two of its former journalists are facing “espionage” charges.
UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights Country Representative Simon Walker said that the urgency of restrictions on freedom of expression may prevent discussion of gender equality.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, meanwhile, released a three-page statement to mark World Press Freedom Day, claiming Cambodia has more freedom of the press than other “democratic” Asean countries.
“Journalists are required to . . . develop the knowledge to make their information true and reflect reality in society in order to combat corruption, reform legislation and judiciary and to reform public administration,” he said.
He went on to say that in the upcoming July election – from which the country’s largest opposition party has been excluded – media must be neutral. “Please journalists avoid being a judge because this is wrong to their profession.”