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Statements laud press freedom, but ignore inconvenient truths

A man looks at news stories on Facebook in a coffeeshop in Phnom Penh. Journalist groups in Cambodia urged for reporters to avoid ‘fake news’, while claiming the Kingdom had the freest press in Asean.
A man looks at news stories on Facebook in a coffeeshop in Phnom Penh. Journalist groups in Cambodia urged for reporters to avoid ‘fake news’, while claiming the Kingdom had the freest press in Asean. Hong Menea

Statements laud press freedom, but ignore inconvenient truths

Cambodian media federations have called for the Kingdom’s journalists to fight “fake news”, even as one presented questionable claims that Cambodia has the freest press in the Asean region.

Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, both the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia (UJFC) and the Cambodia Association for Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) issued statements, with the latter saying it “highly values the situation of press freedom in Cambodia, which is regarded as the country with the best media situation among the Asean countries”.

That statement contradicts an international survey that found Cambodia’s press freedom ranking to have plunged 10 places in the past year, according to the latest index released by Reporters Without Borders last week. Cambodia now ranks 142 globally, below fellow Asean nations Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar.

The government last year shuttered more than 30 radio frequencies broadcasting independent news and issued a $6.3 million tax bill to the Cambodia Daily, forcing it to close. US-funded outlets Voice of America and Radio Free Asia had their in-country operations drastically curtailed, and two former RFA journalists, as well as an Australian filmmaker, have been jailed on espionage and national security charges that are widely seen as politically motivated.

The UJFC, meanwhile, urged journalists to “fight fake news” and to “avoid becoming a tool of poisonous political campaign, predatory politics, dark ideology, using derogatory words and inciting personal and institutional conflicts”.

“The poisonous political campaign [is] when you oppose the government,” said UJFC head Huy Vannak, who is also a secretary of state with the Ministry of Interior. “It happens among most political activists that oppose the CPP. It’s very dangerous.”

He said it was natural for governments to want the media on their side, but ultimately the responsibility of the journalist is to verify the facts, and not allow themselves to be exploited and mislead the public.

When asked if the government itself peddled fake news for its own benefit, such as when it put out a carefully crafted video outlining the reasons for arresting opposition leader Kem Sokha immediately after it happened, Vannak said it would be “stupid” for a politician to create “chaos” in their own country. Claims Hun Sen’s government had orchestrated the killing of political analyst Kem Ley, he said, were also “fake news”.

“In politics we use propaganda; it’s not fake news,” he said. “They are very different. Fake news is tricky, and propaganda [is] what you believe.”

But for Ed Legaspi, executive director at the Southeast Asia Press Alliance, propaganda and so-called “fake news” were fruit of the same tree. “Fake news is a new name for government propaganda,” he said. “[They are] using social media pushing their own agenda . . . and publishing outright lies.”

He feared the Cambodian government used “fake news” as a convenient catch-all while perpetuating false narratives.

He cited government mouthpiece Fresh News as an outlet that was “leaning towards” fake news. Fresh News last year published a string of conspiracy theories lifted verbatim from Facebook to discredit the opposition. Fresh News CEO Lim Cheavutha was unable to comment yesterday.

CAPJ also urged journalists to avoid “broadcasting or publishing untrue information, exaggerating, fabricating, manipulating, and making the situation worse in order to fulfil the political ambition of one group”.

They went on to say that the Kingdom’s press freedom was “ensured and applauded”, and achieved “because of the mutual commitment” between media and government, adding that “opinion expression is equally open without discrimination, or favouring one side or political tendency”.

Despite the CAPJ claims, expression online by citizens has been restricted in numerous cases in which the ruling party was the target of criticism. A man was arrested on his wedding day for calling the government “authoritarian” on Facebook, while a woman who threw a shoe at a ruling party billboard in a video posted to the social media platform was repatriated from Thailand and jailed, despite the UN giving her refugee status.

For Legaspi, the most damning thing in the statements was their failure to acknowledge the jailing of journalists and the pervasive intimidation of reporters. “That’s a bit problematic and even hypocritical,” he said.

This article has been updated to reflect that the two former RFA journalists arrested by the government were not employed by the news organisation at the time of their arrest.

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