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Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Fight for free press

Bruce Swaffield

The news coming out of the Kingdom of Cambodia these days is not good at all, especially for the press. Despite increased solidarity among national media organizations, as well as individual pleas for freedom from government oppression, the situation for journalists continues to grow worse.

Current headlines from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) paint a grim story: “Opposition newspaper reporter gunned down two weeks before general elections” (July 12); “Death threat made against Radio Free Asia journalist” (June 19); “Newspaper publisher freed but still faces trial” (June 16); “Newspaper editor found dead in suitcase” (April 27).

More attacks against journalists have occurred in the first seven months of this year than in all of 2007.

The Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, Southeast Asian Press Alliance, International Federation of Journalists, Committee to Protect Journalists and RSF have all condemned the murders and called on the government to launch an immediate independent investigation. On the CPJ Web site, Asia program coordinator Bob Dietz said, “The killing of journalists unfortunately harks to Cambodia’s violent past.”

A few months earlier, on April 26, the body of a newspaper editor was found in a suitcase. Pov Sam Ath worked for Samleng Khmer Krom (Voice of the Khmers Kroms) in the southern province of Kampong Speu.

“The autopsy showed that his killer used the 29-year-old journalist’s bicycle brake cables to strangle him with,” according to RSF.

The Club of Cambodian Journalists, formed in August 2000, said in a statement on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) that journalists within the country need “to be free to report, to have access to information and favorable working condition[s] ... free from political and economic pressure.” Despite obvious oppression, CCJ commented that, “The Cambodian press freedom is the best, compared with the situation of the press freedom of the other countries in South-East Asia.”

In the 2007 RSF Press Freedom Index, Cambodia was ranked 85 out of 169 in front of Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and China.

A May 2008 media report by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, however, details the widespread abuses within the country. “Cambodia’s news media is often described as one of the freest in the region, with no official censorship and a ‘flourishing press.’ But if we look beyond just the quantity of newspapers and magazines, and listen to journalists and editors describe their working environment, we find a media closely controlled by politics, money and fear. Almost all Cambodia’s media is aligned to a political party, with the vast majority favoring the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

“The situation varies depending on the media — television is totally owned or controlled by the government ... while most newspapers act as mouthpieces for one party or another, with the exception of the foreign-language press. The partisan ownership of Cambodia’s media produces institutionalized political bias in news reporting. This bias is reinforced by a culture of corruption in which journalists are regularly bribed to attend press conferences and photo opportunities, a practice so common it isn’t even considered corruption by most Cambodia reporters. The result is news coverage weighted heavily in favor of those who can pay, namely the government and the CPP.” See www.licadho.org/reports.php#r-123.

At a recent awards ceremony honoring 10 outstanding Cambodian journalists, Ambassador Joseph A. Mussomeli of the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh commended the media for “helping Cambodia to achieve the promise of democracy. I also salute those in the press who courageously do their work at great risk. The press is often a target of retaliation by those who feel threatened by freedom of expression and transparency in democratic processes. Investigative reporting often places journalists in danger, and it is the duty of governments and citizens worldwide to speak out for their protection and for their vital role in open societies.

“The country needs to end the practice of criminal disinformation lawsuits by high government officials,” he added. “After all, government officials are servants of the people, and as such they should never sue their masters. Such lawsuits restrict free speech, inhibit the watchdog role of the media and contribute to the cover-up of misdeeds and corruption. And for one reason or another, some Cambodian journalists still practice self-censorship, a tendency they need to overcome in order to root out corruption and to strengthen investigative reporting — though not forgetting the necessary demarcation between opinions and straight news.”

The Investigative Journalism Awards Competition was organized by the CCJ with the support and sponsorship of the U.S. Embassy. Winners were recognized at a June 28 ceremony. See cambodia.usembassy.gov/sp_062808b.html.

In support of my media colleagues in the kingdom, I sent an e-mail to the Cambodian government. If you would like to join me, contact Minister of Information Kiev Kanharith at sg@nida.gov.kh.

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