Although the revocation of the licence for online news outlet VOD may not help the journalist profession in the Kingdom grow stronger, it would not cause the death of press freedom either.

What this reveals is a need of established mechanisms to mediate and settle conflicts such as this one in an independent, transparent and fair manner.

A controversial decision

The Ministry of Information announced the annulment of licence for VOD, which was overseen by the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media (CCIM), on February 13. The decision came a day after Prime Minister Hun Sen gave VOD 24 hours to issue a public apology for its “intentionally slanderous” report on the government’s earthquake reliefs to Turkiye, and after his son Hun Manet asked the outlet to show evidence proving that he had acted in an official role on the premier’s behalf.

Both CCIM and VOD, which published in Khmer and English and also produced radio programmes, failed to comply with the premier’s demand and Manet’s request.

Some public institutions at the national and sub-national levels, as well as some veteran journalists and intellectuals, hailed the ministry’s move as due enforcement of the press law, saying the decision to revoke the licence would help strengthen the professional ethics of journalists in Cambodia.

At the same time, some members of the public, civil society organisations and foreign embassies in Cambodia expressed very different views, saying that they were deeply disappointed and concerned about restrictions and political pressure on press freedom and independent reporting.

Those who support and those who oppose the ministry’s decision seem to have one thing in common: They want to see the proper enforcement of the laws and the upholding of professional ethics, which are the core standards protecting media rights and freedom.

However, they have different opinions when they take into consideration the decision in a political context and for political reasons. I refrain from commenting on political perspective.

Citing its reasons for the annulment, the ministry said VOD had seriously violated the ethics of the journalist profession and tarnished the government’s reputation and prestige.

VOD, the ministry explained, refused to run corrections according to the provisions of the press law after it “incorrectly” reported on February 9, 2023, that Manet – deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and future prime ministerial candidate for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – had signed the document authorising Cambodia’s donation to quake-hit Turkiye.

The outlet claimed to have cited a government spokesperson as saying that “Manet acting in an official role on behalf of his father in delivering the assistance to Turkiye was not improper”.

One should ask whether VOD committed a serious misconduct and if it was committed, did it seriously tarnish the reputation and prestige of the Cambodian government? In such case, which authority is competent to determine the misconduct, damage and relevant punishment?

Serious professional misconduct and its punishment

Under Article 7, paragraph 11, of the Law on the Press from 1995, the following shall be treated as grave professional misconduct by journalists: Writing to imply a meaning that creates unjust suspicions among readers about any individual or party; calumny; defamation; unfounded humiliation.

If there is a misrepresentation or distortion or slander that is detrimental to the honour or dignity of any individual, that individual has the right to demand that the press issues corrections, or to respond or file a defamation complaint for acts that affect their honour and dignity.

The law mandates that the court decides whether wrongdoing took place or whether the tort affected the aggrieved individual.

If the court finds that the publication’s statements were not true as cited in the complaint of the plaintiff, the court can order the outlet to run corrections or pay defamatory compensation. The court can also order a fine of between 1 and five million riel ($250 and $1,250) and can order the announcement of its decision to the public.

However, the press law does not require journalists to make a public apology to the aggrieved individual, nor does it allow the information minister to revoke the licence of the publisher for disseminating information.

Disproportionate exercise of administrative power or privilege

The information minister’s decision to annul the licence may be the exercise of administrative power granted by government regulation subordinating to the law. Such exercise of power shall be reasonable, transparent and fair. Particularly, sanctions on media outlets shall be proportionate to the mistakes made by it or its journalist, and in line with procedural justice.

A regulatory instrument which has the effect of restricting constitutional rights and freedom of citizens may be unconstitutional. Moreover, an application of law would be just if it meets criteria for procedural and substantive justices.

Equal legal protection of wrongdoers and victims

Any person who found that the media reporting was detrimental to his honour and prestige can file a suit to court, which is an independent body, to adjudicate on misconduct, compensation and/or punishment according to the press law and other laws in force.

The journalist or the editor-in-chief of VOD should have been given the right to defend their reporting in court as part of determining whether they had engaged in professional misconduct.

Going through an adjudication proceeding would be considered as one of the means of a fair resolution of dispute.

The press law aims to determine rules for the media and ensure freedom of the press and freedom of publication as prescribed in the Constitution. While the Constitution recognises freedom of expression, it also stipulates that citizens’ exercise of rights only extend to the point where they do not affect the rights and the honour of others, the good traditions of society, public order and national security.

No one should be punished for misconduct which is not stipulated in the law, and any punishment shall be within the legal limits.

Alternative conflict resolution

In some developed nations with press freedom, they have established systems of conflict resolution with those mechanisms such as arbitration, mediation, ombudsman being used first before they decide on things such as whether to revoke the licence of the media outlet or not.

In cases where there is a dispute between a journalist and a public official or individual, especially with the prime minister, the information minister would not always be considered capable of acting as a neutral regulator or arbitrator.

Unintended consequences from an unjust decision

The information ministry could be seen as not having used its best endeavour to seek or provide fair resolution to VOD. Instead, its decision makes it appear that the information ministry had used its administrative power to restrict media freedom and independence for political reasons.

By doing so, investors and other people may consequently lose confidence in administrative institutions for lack of fairness and reasonable resolutions; no legal security and certainty can be ensured by state authorities for a licence or permit issued by them. A permit issued can be revoked at any time without going through a due process or giving an opportunity to protest the decision or defend their actions.

It could also intimidate those who intend to exercise their right to speak their minds when their opinions are not in line with the ideas or desires of the powerful.

In my opinion, the information ministry should have resolved the case through independent, transparent and fair mechanisms, according to the laws in force.

The ministry should not have assumed that the journalists had committed the “grave professional misconduct”, violation of law and professional ethics and annulled their licence before the court decided on the wrongdoing and the tort for the victims.

In conclusion, the present ruling of the information ministry could set a bad precedent in the application of law; it reveals, however, a need of adequate dispute resolution mechanism which is independent, transparent and just. It will not strengthen the media profession or improve professional ethics for journalists.

Meas Pheakdey, Phnom Penh