With World Press Freedom Day approaching next week, two Cambodian journalists living in exile say Cambodia needs to improve its media environment or risk becoming more dangerous, or an authoritarian state.
The vast majority of Cambodia’s TV, radio and newspapers are controlled or influenced by members of the ruling party and the government, with few outlets for alternative news or opposition voices. Cambodia's media was described as ''not free'' Thursday in Freedom House's annual international press freedom report for 2010. Last year, Freedom House ranked Cambodia’s media as “partly free,” and Reporters Without Borders ranks the country No. 117 of 174 in press freedom.
Un Sokhom was the editor in chief of the Neak Prayuth newspaper until he fled to the US in 2004 in fear of his safety. He says a more open press will bring more safety to society.
“This is important, what impacts the life of a journalist,” he told VOA Khmer from his home in Lowell, Mass., where he eventually settled. “What we have seen is that journalists dare not express their freedom [leading to] society’s covering up a lot of bad social issues.”
Cambodian media have under-covered important issues like forced evictions, corruption and sex trafficking, he said, when they should act as a “mirror of society.”
Without journalists pointing out social ills, “people live in more fear than before,” he said, adding that if Cambodian journalists do not stand on their principles, the next generation will suffer.
Reporting in Cambodia can be dangerous.
In 2008, opposition journalist Khim Sambor was killed along with his son, and just last year, opposition editor Hang Chakra was jailed for nearly a year after reporting on alleged corruption at the powerful Council of Ministers; he was only recently released.
Twelve Cambodian journalists have been killed since 1995, while others have faced imprisonment through criminal defamation laws brought in courts largely seen as biased or influenced by money. Still others have fled the country after receiving death threats to themselves or their families. These journalists were usually reporting on incendiary issues like corruption, deforestation, drug trafficking and others.
Lem Piseth is a former reporter for Radio Free Asia. He now lives under political asylum in Norway, after receiving death threats in 2008 as he reported on illegal logging in Kampong Thom province’s Prey Lang forest.
“Cambodia will be an authoritarian country,” he said. “We can’t express our opinions, we don’t have enough freedom in writing, we can only have a level of writing for one’s favor. Then the country will not have democracy.”
Press freedom is especially important during election time, he said, but Cambodia’s airwaves and newspapers are full of news on the ruling government’s activities, providing a skewed view of news.
“In Cambodia, if we look at it from the outside, we see that the freedom of expression, and the freedom of the press as well, almost fully exist,” he said. “But such freedom is on terms, that it is not affecting the power of the country’s leaders. And if the expression and writing affect their power, especially in digging into corruption, the destruction of national property, deforestation and so on, that which involves the top leaders, then those who publish the report and those who write such a report will be in trouble.”
For Vincent Brossel, the Asia Pacific director for Reporters Without Borders, press freedom means creating conditions for political alternatives. The best way for governments to stay in power, then, is to control the media, a trend across Asia, he said.
“In all countries, especially developing countries, without a free media you can’t get accountability and good governance,” he told VOA Khmer from France. “Investigations are very important to create awareness.”
“In Cambodia, we can’t expect TV channels to play this role, and independent newspapers are very rare,” he said. “But radio stations are playing a very important role. It’s an alternative to the official news.”
Brossel said the government and journalists need to work to reform press freedoms.
“First, it’s a question of political will from authorities, coming from the government, from the judicial system, from police also,” he said. “They have to create a positive environment for the free media. But it’s also the responsibility of journalists themselves, because they have to respect ethical standards, they have to keep away from corruption, they have to have balanced reports, and they have to investigate all the stories, not just take things that are easy to take.”
While Cambodian TV cover only the government’s agenda, he said, Cambodia has made some progress relative to other countries, moving in ranking from 126 to 117, at least from September 2008 to September 2009, just above some of the worst countries.
However, the jailing of Hang Chakra signaled a deterioration of the situation, he added.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told VOA Khmer that he regrets such negative evaluations by international organizations, because press freedom and the professionalism of journalists are improving.
“Such criticism we always welcome, but we ask [journalists] to avoid disinformation and news that attacks,” he said. “We do not want to see our society fall into what is called a state receiving only untrue stories or exaggeration or rumor. What we want is the press responding to the public, not a press that just exposes the opinion of any one individual.”
Cambodia does not restrict the press, he said, pointing to the English-language Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily as examples.
“In Cambodia, there is [Radio Free Asia], which broadcasts in Khmer for US interests,” he said. “We have the Voice of America, which uses Cambodian airwaves to broadcast unlimitedly and freely.”
Phay Siphan also pointed out the dangers of the media, claiming political turmoil in Thailand was helped by broadcasts that incited people to violence.
“If the press lacks a conscience and professionalism, that causes society’s destruction,” he said, “like war crimes in Africa, in which the media caused killings, and this is condemned from internationals as well.”