UNTAC announced plans last week to sponsor several televised "round table"
discussions on political issues and create a Cambodian Media Association to promote
ethical media practices and to coordinate training of Khmer journalists abroad.
The roundtable discussions will take place in November and December, according to
UNTAC Director of Information and Education Timothy Carney.
"These will not be polemical discussions-a new aspect for the media in Cambodia,"
said Carney, who chaired a meeting of Khmer journalists on Sept. 3 to discuss a draft
media charter by UNTAC for Cambodia.
Carney hopes to have the charter in place before voter registration begins next month.
The charter will replace existing press laws in the transitional period before next
year's elections, he said.
Attending the meeting were representatives from State of Cambodia television and
radio, several Khmer- and English-language newspapers based in Phnom Penh, as well
as the information officers and press spokesmen of three political parties.
Stressing that the charter was not yet set in stone, Carney said he wanted the draft
broadly disseminated and discussed, particularly among the Cambodian press.
Debate at the meeting centered around whether the charter should replace current
laws or whether it simply provides a set of journalistic guidelines.
State of Cambodia Vice Minister Khieu Kanharith, former editor of Kampuchea newspaper,
raised concerns about the charter's implementation and enforcement.
"If this draft is going to be used in place of existing legislation it will
have to be much more detailed and precise than it already is," said Kanharith.
Kanharith said the charter needed to specify UNTAC's criterion in deciding to suspend
or close down a media outlet, as well as grievance procedures for media muzzled by
Ung Huot, a political advisor for Funcinpec, the party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh,
agreed that the charter needs more teeth if it is intended as a legal mechanism.
"However," he added, "if we're talking about a document whose purpose
is to encourage full freedom of expression by newspapers, radio, and T.V., then this
is an appropriate and good document."
Buddhist Liberal Democracy Party (BLDP) Information Director Pol Ham advocated that
the charter be quickly implemented and replace existing laws to insure the safety
of political parties and media outlets.
Last February, the deputy editor of the BLDP's news bulletin was shot and wounded
on the street not far from the political organization's Phnom Penh headquarters.
"It's crucial that this law be promulgated as soon as possible to insure that
nothing happens to us in the meantime that is unacceptable," Pol said.
Pol Bounchhat Heng Vong of the Liberal Democratic Party questioned how the charter
would monitor media that is broadcast or published in other countries, citing a Khmer
Rouge radio station based in Kunming, China.
Vong also criticized UNTAC's use of the word "national" in specifying in
the charter that it would penalize advocacy of national hatred, hostility, or violence.
"For us to adopt a national stance is not an issue of racism," Vong said.
"If you want us to oppose discrimination on the basis of skin color or race
we're happy to do that. However if you want us not to like Khmers more than we like
foreigners, that's unacceptable."
Representatives from the party of Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) were invited
to the meeting but failed to attend.
Among other provisions of UNTAC's draft media charter:
- Gives parties, groups, or individuals who believe their views have been misrepresented,
criticized, or maligned the right of response in the same media outlet.
- Discourages any single, dominant ownership of a majority of media outlets in
one region to ensure that the media is free, open, and pluralistic.
- Calls for existing administrative registration requirements for media outlets
to be streamlined.
- "If any applicant has not received an answer within one month of submitting
its [registration] request [to the State of Cambodia], UNTAC will consider that application
to have been approved," the draft charter states.
- Prohibits individuals or organizations from copying and selling the original
work of an author without written permission from the author.
- Calls on UNTAC, in coordination with the international community and the Cambodia
Media Association, to identify and remove economic barriers to free expression, such
as shortage of newsprint, broadcast equipment, or skilled personnel.
- Gives journalists the right of free access to records and documents of existing
administrative structures, although UNTAC can restrict access to materials it deems
essential to Cambodia's security.
- Urges journalists to protect the privacy of individuals, as well as the identity
of confidential sources of information.
- The charter also states: "Journalists may invade the privacy of individuals
only when a greater public interest is served. As in other democracies, public figures
enjoy less stringent protections. "
- Empowers UNTAC to take "appropriate corrective steps" if a media outlet
has breached the code or is acting contrary to the Paris Agreements.