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
"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,"
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
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."