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'Push now' for Press freedom

'Push now' for Press freedom

Khmer journalists must act now to enshrine the principles of a free and independent

media before the government introduces laws restricting the press.

This was one message last week at a seminar on media ethics for local journalists

and editors at Phnom Penh's Foreign Correspondents' Club.

The man making the point was Chris Warren, head of Australia's Media, Entertainment

and Arts Alliance (MEAA), who told the UNESCO-organized seminar that journalists

must now draft their own code asserting the media's independence while the new government

is still settling in.

"It's important for journalists to push as far as they can now," he told

the Post. "The constitution recognizes free speech, all political parties are

committed to free speech; now is the time for journalists to seize the opportunities

[and] set up a press association."

Warren wants to encourage and advise Khmer journalists to draw up a code of ethics

enshrining the principles of a free press.

Although the Information Ministry appears to support the concept, Warren believes

there is an even-chance Cambodia may follow the path of other Asian governments in

keeping a tight rein on the press under the guise of national interest.

"The entire thing's up for grabs," says Warren, who believes local journalists

should start grabbing now.

A first step, says Warren, is to form a self-regulated journalists' association with

its own code of ethics enshrining such principles as truth, objectivity, accuracy

and fairness.

"The code would have a role in guaranteeing rights because if journalists don't

have their own code then it leaves a vacuum that governments find hard not to fill,"

he said.

Such a charter should underline that the acceptance of bribes is a serious ethical

breach and that low-pay is no excuse.

The MEAA is offering resources and funding to help local journalists establish a

similar association.

The Information Ministry told the Post it welcomes the idea of a self-regulated Cambodian

journalists' association with its own independently-drafted code of ethics.

Sieng La Presse, the ministry's Director of Cabinet, says while he is in power the

government will not breach the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press by

exercising censorship or by curtailing media activities in any way.

Even so, the Constitution, while supporting freedom of speech, did not abolish the

country's draconian censorship laws which remain on the statute books.

La Presse says if journalists want to publish a story that threatens national security,

the government will approach them face-to-face, ideally through a journalists' association,

and ask them to modify it.

Such a move begs the question of how the government would have prior knowledge of

unpublished stories and has led some journalists to question whether the government

has fully considered the press freedom issue.

Contradictory statements left some observers confused. Despite loud support for the

notion of free speech, the ministry's view was clearly summed up by La Presse: "The

government should [tell journalists] straight 'you tone it up or down'. Journalists

should co-operate that way instead of making us have to use the law."

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