Media experts and observers yesterday called the National Election Committee’s media code of conduct a “code of censorship” that violates Cambodia’s Constitution, warning it should not be used “to justify any clampdown” on media covering the upcoming June 4 commune elections.
Under the code of conduct, journalists are prohibited from publishing or broadcasting “confusing” information that leads to a “loss of trust in the election”. They are also banned from expressing personal ideas or prejudgments of any event being covered, reporting on rumours or baseless information and insulting a national institution, political party or candidate.
The Ministry of Information, meanwhile, has threatened to revoke the licence of media organisations and shutter their businesses if they fail to abide by the NEC’s guidelines and code of conduct.
However, the ambiguity of the NEC’s rules makes it unclear what is and is not acceptable and could place journalists and the Kingdom’s news outlets in a difficult position, observers said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the “NEC has issued a code of censorship for journalists covering the election and dressed it up with the fancy term ‘code of conduct’ to make it look more palatable”.
“The maximum discretion and undefined terminology provided in this de facto censorship order means that any reporting the government doesn’t like will immediately expose the reporter to serious risk,” he wrote in an email. “This is an extension of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s war on the independent media, and the code should be revoked.”
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said the NEC’s rules were mere “red tape” and were a “violation” of the country’s constitution, in particular Article 41. The article protects freedom of the press and expression, albeit with the caveats that such freedom cannot be used to infringe on others’ “dignity”, the “good mores” of society and national security.
“Professional journalists know what to do and what not to do,” Chhean Nariddh said. “The biggest punishment will come from the public.” Several newspapers have disappeared because the public was able to distinguish between good and bad journalism, he added.
The code of conduct – citing the Law on Elections of Lawmakers and the Law on Commune Elections – calls for a fine of 5 million to 20 million riel, or about $1,250 to $5,000.
Asked under what law the Information Ministry was empowered to revoke a media organisation’s licence and shut it down for failing to follow the NEC’s rules, ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng said he didn’t “have any comment on any particular law”.
“We based it on all aspects of the law and regulations that we have,” he said. Ed Legaspi, executive director at the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Press Alliance, said invoking these rules can become “dangerous if wielded for the purpose of controlling the media”.
“In this case, the [Ministry of Information] should not be using these NEC rules as a means to justify any clampdown on the media during the campaign,” he wrote in an email.
However, Huy Vannak, president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia – and a Ministry of Interior official – defended the NEC’s code of conduct. He said the rules are “good for your profession and moral responsibility”.
He said journalists would be able to distinguish what to report by remaining neutral. “I think the code of conduct is like a work contract, and will help you,” he said. “It’s like having a map in hand . . . and you won’t lose your way.”
NEC member and spokesman Hang Puthea, meanwhile, maintained the rules fell within the law and were not in violation of the constitution.
He said the goal of the code of conduct was to support all political parties without any “problems”.
“The code of conduct is not outside the constitution,” he said, adding the NEC will hold a workshop on Friday to provide guidance to journalists.