The government’s lead spokesperson and a group of journalists met on January 6 to discuss the challenges involved with accessing information regarding the government’s activities through the secretaries of state at the ministries and officials at other institutions with similar media liaison duties.
Phay Siphan, chairman of the government’s public relations committee, said during a meeting with the media at the Council of Ministers that it was organised to exchange views with journalists and hear about their experiences – including difficulties – related to the flow of information from the government to the media.
He said that, in principle, the government wants to see the media and journalists work with the authorities and assist with the process of developing and building the nation and he felt that many journalists could be more actively helpful in that regard.
Siphan said the government has appointed spokespersons at both the national and sub-national levels to maintain a free and comprehensive flow of information to the public through the journalists and the press.
However, he said journalists should stand on the fundaments of transparency and integrity when serving the public by providing information to them.
“Our unit would like to increase opportunities for journalists to ask us questions, because the people will be blind and deaf without the information that only we can provide,” said Siphan.
He acknowledged that in the past some spokespersons for government entities had not always successfully carried out their official duties and responded to the needs of journalists and had faced difficulties dealing with the media as a result.
However, the government spokesperson unit has not received any official complaints from the media recently about any spokespersons from the ministries or provincial governments related to performance of their official duties, according to Siphan, leading him to conclude that internal efforts at improvement and reform have been effective.
“We used to hear all the time that it was very difficult to get information from a certain spokesperson about this or that, but we aren’t hearing the same kind of complaints or protests about these problems as before,” he said.
Khoun Sambo, editor-in-chief of CCTIME, said that in his experience as a journalist he was of the opinion that access to information today is much improved due to technological progress and a more open and media-friendly attitude from government ministries and institutions that has made it easier for them to do their jobs.
However, he said that getting information from some spokespersons in some institutions was still a challenge for journalists but one that has more to do with the individual competency of certain officials than it does government secrecy.
He also noted that many institutions have created things like Telegram groups or other social media channels for journalists to get information from, but he cautioned that journalists should really get independent confirmation of any information shared via those channels before reporting on it.
“Despite the more accessible spokespersons and things like Telegram groups, there are sometimes still issues and problems with getting further comment or more details than are provided by the press releases,” said Sambo.
Tha Chanthy, a reporter for VAYO radio, said that when she reports on a given topic and has questions for the ministry most relevant to it and they do not respond, it can make her reporting seem unbalanced or biased against the government and this sometimes forces her to hold the story or refrain from reporting it entirely.
“We want them to give equal access for interviews to my outlet and all other institutions, because I’ve often had the experience of calling government spokespersons and having them tell me that they’ve already commented on the matter to a different outlet so I should just refer to those statements rather than allowing me to ask my questions of them,” she said, adding that practices like that are antithetical to professional journalism.
Siphan said he understood her frustration with that practice and that he would look into the matter.
He also noted that later this year, he would like to hold a meeting or forum with all of the government spokespersons and all professional journalists who wished to attend in order to discuss their shared challenges further and look for ways to work together to serve the public interest.