W ild and undisciplined, or the unfair target of government sanctions? As the
Press Law is due to go before lawmakers this week, Jason Barber and
Heng Sok Chheng examine the rivalries inside the press, and talk to some
WHEN a Khmer newspaper recently published a leaked
government memorandum, complete with one of the Prime Ministers' signatures, not
all Khmer journalists considered it a scoop.
"What can we do about this,
to punish them?" demanded one editor, aghast at the printing of a government
document without permission.
His view highlights that Cambodia's
burgeoning free press is by no means a united one. Freedom of the press - and
good journalism - has widely different meanings to those in the fourth
"There are people who agree with us. There are another group of
people who say... if you write something bad, you must go to jail," the Khmer
Journalists Association president Pin Samkhon says of his own members.
While such differences of opinion may be inevitable and even healthy,
they illustrate deep divisions in the foundations of the free press.
also make it harder to reach a consensus on how to improve journalism standards
and ethics. Or, as Samkhon puts it, how to define "what is a journalist, a real
While many in the industry believe slander and defamation
laws are the way to make journalists "clean up their act", others openly welcome
the government's proposed press law.
"The draft press law is good,"
declares Chheav Sy Pha of Koh Santepheap, a daily newspaper which concentrates
on crime news, and a KJA member.
"I want newspapers to be responsible. I
support the press law."
His disdain for some newspapers is implicit,
though he declines to comment on them, saying: "That's their own
In its pages, however, Koh Santepheap isn't immune to throwing
criticism at other papers. It is currently being sued by Sereipheap Thmei (New
Liberty News) for publishing an attack on one of its articles.
Kampuchea, Cambodia's biggest Khmer newspaper, is also less than concerned by
the draft law. Editor-in-Chief Pen Samitthy says he initially opposed the law
because he thought it was anti-democratic, but later decided "that journalists
do not have enough professionalism [and] we must have the press law".
we don't have the law... people will still use newspapers to pursue their
[political] aims, and step by step journalists will have no position in
Samitthy adds that he opposes the jailing of journalists, as
the current draft of the law allows.
In reality, it has been a minority
of Khmer newspapers who have actively and adamantly opposed the press
The ones with relatively good government relations presumably
consider they have little to fear. They are perhaps not displeased at the
prospect of some, anti-government, competitors facing harsh
Papers like Samleng Yuvachon Khmer (Voice of Khmer Youth),
which have faced suspensions, arrests or outright intimidation, are the most
Citing a lack of judicial independence in Cambodia, they fear
the government will use the law's jail and financial penalties to declare open
season on them.
The KJA's Pin Samkhon says all its members, even
government newspapers, stuck by an internal resolution that they would publish
articles about press freedoms.
But privately some editors take a vastly
different line, and talk of jailing journalists and so on.
"I explain to
them that you must not say things like that. That the KJA must support freedom
of expression," says Samkhon.
The KJA - which has 29 newspaper members,
out of more than 40 Khmer publications in Cambodia - also faces discord from
Five of the more anti-government newspapers, including Voice of
Khmer Youth, are forming their own Independent Journalists
Rasmei Kampuchea, meanwhile, recently withdrew its KJA
membership because of its owners' belief that it should not be involved with
"matters of policy". Editor-in-Chief Pen Samitthy says he "may" retain personal
KJA membership, but urges Samkhon not to do things which divide the
Samitthy is critical of the KJA's decision to conduct public
opinion polls, one of which found dissident MP Sam Rainsy was Cambodia's most
He also complains that Samkhon - who also runs his
own newspaper, Khmer Ekareach (Khmer Independent) - does not keep his private
business strictly separate from the KJA.
There are also murmurings about
the outside funding given to the KJA and, as Samitthy says, that "many people
are in the association for the money".
Some criticism of the KJA may be
due to personality disputes and rivalries with the high-profile Samkhon, a
former French-trained teacher turned journalist, who has faced fierce criticism
in the pages of some newspapers.
"They say...that I am a pig, that I come
from outside Cambodia, and I work for politics," he says. "Not yet have they
said I am corrupt - I think that will come later."
He disputes a common
claim that he is pro-government. But he believes government funding of the KJA
is necessary for its survival, and acknowledges accepting a two million riel
donation from First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh.
"I don't take the
government as a friend or an enemy. I need the government and I think the
government needs me, to build something... You have to explain what you want in
this [press] law. You cannot attack all the time."
A key approach of the
KJA is to encourage professionalism and responsibility. It runs journalist
training seminars and wants to establish an ethics committee to rule on
complaints against members.
Foreign donars are encouraging such
activities. The US government, through the Asia Foundation, has provided KJA
funding including the salary of American journalist, Mike Fowler, to work as an
The French, Danish and Australian governments have put money
into a new Cambodia Communication Institute, which also offers media
Criticisms leveled at some newspapers include that they mix
opinion and "news", both often without any facts, in articles.
antagonistic language - of the "fat pig, dirty rat, thief" variety, as one
journalist puts it - remains a prime concern.
But Pin Samkhon warns that
the press will only change as quickly as the Cambodian public's expectations of
it do. "Many people are not ready to read stories without opinion in them. The
[more abusive] papers think they are more professional because more people read
Mike Fowler, the KJA's American adviser, agrees that some
reporting can be "artless and offensive" but says slander laws, not
imprisonment, are the way to deal with that.
Bad reporting does not
justify a general press crack-down, he says, adding: "It may be foolish and
certainly unprofessional but it falls under the umbrella of the free press."