The recent wave of defamation lawsuits involving the media and the government makes
it the right time to review the roles of the media and its responsibilities in a
fragile democracy like Cambodia.
Like the media in other democratic nations around the world, the fundamental roles
the Khmer media play are to inform, to educate and to entertain the public.
During the last more than 10 years since the UN-sponsored elections in 1993, scores
of functioning newspapers mushroomed, followed by the establishment of private radio
and TV stations. Regardless of the quality of their products and their political
affiliations, different Cambodian news organizations have done a tremendous job to
fulfill the three roles.
With news from various parts of the country and stories from different corners of
the world, the Khmer people no longer feel isolated like "a frog in a pond"
as they did during the Khmer Rouge period and the subsequent communist regime. They
feel more of a nationhood living in Cambodia, the country they love or hate given
the experience they went through. People are also starting to feel the concept of
the world being a global village after having been able to read, listen or view events
from around the globe through the media.
Because of the media, Cambodians have gained more knowledge about different issues,
including democracy, human rights, healthcare, HIV/AIDS, the environment, agriculture
As a function of the democratic process, the role of the media is even more important.
It is a forum for debate over critical issues vital to society to find the best solutions
based on a wide range of ideas and opinions from experts as well as ordinary people
who are interested in or affected by a policy or problem.
With the information and knowledge they obtain from the media, people can make more
informed decisions about their daily lives, particularly the decision to vote for
politicians and political parties that they think can represent their interests and
can help address their needs and concerns.
After more than two decades of genocide and civil war, people desperately need true
entertainment, which was denied by the Khmer Rouge and the communist regimes. Many
people can now relax with stories, music and other entertaining materials they find
in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, and recharge their energy after a long day
of hard work.
Beside the roles of informing, educating and entertaining, the Khmer media have also
played the role of inspiring and empowering people.
The long-lasting turmoil in Cambodia has left many people with severe post-traumatic
stress and despair. In a way, the media have also helped restore their shattered
lives and spirits when they hear stories about the successes and achievements made
by people who had experienced similar nightmares.
To put the roles of the media differently, the paramount duty of the press is to
represent the voice of ordinary citizens, to be "the voice of the voiceless."
Many people who had lost hope of finding legal redress to the problems or injustices
they faced have often turned to the press as "the court of last resort"
to air their grievances and hopefully to call the attention of people who might have
sympathy and care about their suffering. A recent case of hunger in Kampong Speu
province that led to five deaths can explain more about the media being "the
voice of the voiceless." It was the media that brought this issue of famine
to light, and thus aroused awareness among the government and relief agencies who
rushed to help those poor people.
In the political arena, some people portray the role of the media as being the watchdog
of the government, the National Assembly and the Judiciary by using its invisible
might as what some people call "the Fourth Power" to ensure that the three
other powers will not abuse their mandate defined by the Constitution and laws. However,
this is where most of the troubles begin, as many media and journalists have had
to suffer boomerang effects as the result of exercising this political role.
Many journalists have become the victims of their usually innocent work and intention
to keep the public informed of the country's affairs as well as other wrongdoings
and abuses committed by people in power. Since free democracy and a free press were
reintroduced to Cambodia 12 years ago, many journalists have been murdered, injured,
sued, arrested and jailed for defamation. Their common crime was to try to expose
illegal logging, drug and human trafficking, murder cases, land grabbing as well
as other serious human rights violations.
While normally neglecting the crucial roles of the media, the Executive, the Legislative
and the Judicial branches have tried to question the responsibilities of the media
and thus hold the press accountable for the mistakes they make in their profession.
Of course, journalists, like other citizens, are not exempt from abiding by the laws
of the country. Those who are found guilty of committing serious crimes like killing,
stealing or cheating must be punished by law. However, if a newspaper or a journalist
makes a mistake just by quoting someone who made critical comments of the government,
the National Assembly or the court, or merely by expressing their opinions over an
important issue that the three powers don't like, they should surely not be punished
like criminals who commit serious crimes.
As clearly mentioned in the press law, individuals or institutions who feel that
their reputations are affected by the honest though careless work of journalists
should only seek corrections and clarification. Or the worst thing they should demand
from the journalists or media is an apology. Clarification by calling a press conference
or asking the media to publish corrections or an apology, as the last resort, should
be measures enough to restore the reputation or dignity of the individuals or institutions
who think that their reputation and dignity have been harmed by the media.
Of course, we have all claimed that Cambodia is a democratic nation. But the question
is, "Do we consider Cambodian democracy a real democracy?" If we do, we
should do what a free democracy has got to do. In a free democracy, free speech and
free press are not the hardest things we can offer.
* Moeun Chhean Narridh is an independent media trainer who lives in Phnom Penh