[Editor’s note: Phay Siphan is the spokesman for the Cambodian government. On Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, Cambodia ranks 144 out of 178. Ahead of the international press freedom day, VOA Khmer’s Aun Chhengpor sat down with Siphan to talk about reporting on corruption, independent journalism, and professionalism.]
VOA: Is there a free press in Cambodia?
Phay Siphan: Cambodia has taken a big step toward what we call a free press regime in the context of an open and democratic nation where we need journalists who have freedom. But at the same time, journalists need to be responsible for what they speak and write.
VOA: Are reporters free to report on whatever topic they want?
Phay Siphan: Yes. Whatever you want to report, do it. But it must be built on the basis of truth, and be neither terrifying, nor create a misunderstanding that leads to uprising. Journalists are neither political activists nor do they belong to any political party. They only need to be professional.
Journalists need to report accurately and comprehensively, not perform the role of a political activist.
VOA: Can journalists report on sensitive issues, including corruption and illegal logging?
Phay Siphan:I observe that journalists – if they are professional – can report on those issues, because there is no reason [not to], as the government respects free press; we have zero pre-publication censorship.
At the same time, we urge [journalists] to respect privacy in order to avoid accusation of [violating] privacy. For example, if your reporting involves mentioning exact names and displaying portrait-photographs of the person, they have to be able to respond to defend their reputation. That’s because journalists are not judiciary judges.
VOA: Is there a no-go zone at any level of the cabinet that cannot be reported by journalists or that is immune to criticism or scrutiny?
Phay Siphan: I don’t think there is any boundary, as an upcoming Law on Access to Information is being finalized by the Information Ministry. This will assist investigations.
VOA: Recently, Radio Free Asia did two investigations. First, they found that the Energy Ministry’s Secretary of State Ith Prang held vast amounts of property in Florida and Georgia in the U.S. Second, they found a property purchase in the early 2000s by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s children. In both pieces, they raise questions about a balance between the value of the properties in question and the salaries that government employees receive in Cambodia. Is this kind of investigation available in Cambodia?
Phay Siphan: I think that the content of their report is one thing – but we have to question whether they did any investigation into where the money came from. We see that their reporting seems to be directed toward an accusation that those [properties] were financed by corrupted money. That is what they [the RFA journalists] want to tell.
But I know Ith Prang, his family, and many other people. Even my own children own millions in property not because they are corrupt, but because the economy of Cambodia is booming in areas like real estate.
It is not related to political or public affairs, but a private matter. They earn money through a clean channel by investing in real estates and other kinds of businesses.
And, for the money transferred to buy properties abroad, foreign embassies of the destination shall make their own scrutiny on the background of the money before they allow the transaction.
Some journalists commit the act of envy, and, in some cases, it leads to insults and allegation.
VOA: You talk about the absence of pre-publication censorship. How about self-censorship among journalists?
Phay Siphan: I have never been a journalist so I do not know.
VOA: Do you think self-censorship exists?
Phay Siphan: How can I think whether it exists or not when I am not a reporter? But regarding self-censorship, I don’t think reporters would back down [from any topic] if they are professional. If you are scared of reporting this and that, you are not a journalist. But I encourage that before you and other journalists publish anything, you have to check whether your wording and tone looks like a news report or a court verdict.
VOA: Do you know if journalists can do investigative journalism here in Cambodia?
Phay Siphan: I see that some local journalists do that for the foreign press. But those investigations are not correct in content. The content runs counter to the reality in Cambodia. It only touches on the surface with little news value. Some investigations are entirely wrong or emotion-driven, moving beyond bias, and journalists become activists.
Of course, you can report what you see or what you observe. But you have to make sure you are not accused of becoming a judge or an opposition activist. The government, however, does not hate journalists. If we were, there would be no need for spokespersons to work or for this press affairs unit to exist at all.
VOA: You mentioned “journalists” and “political activists” several times. Would you like to tell me what the differences are? When journalists are fulfilling their Fourth Estate functions to scrutinize the government, are they considered “political activists” in your view?
Phay Siphan: We understand that journalists are happy to be granted the honor and power of the Fourth Estate. But this kind of power is sometimes dictatorial. This is just my idea. That is why we need a clear distinction between “journalists” and “political activists”.
Journalists shall not make personal commentary on the issues they are reporting on. I see they do some covert practices by inviting political analysts to make comments that actually stem from journalists.
VOA: Can you name a few independent media outlets with independent journalisms?
Phay Siphan: I wouldn’t say. I try not to name. This is an insult. This is an accusation and an attack on others, so I hope you could excuse me on this question.
Journalists themselves know very clearly if they are independent. I myself cannot accept the so-called term of “independent journalism”, because this is just an alternative term to the freedom of the press. They use [this term] to start a revolution, [they use it] to incite and polarize the society toward an eventual uprising against any regime.
In Cambodia, some rookies just start and call themselves independent journalists.
I don’t support independent journalists but professional journalists.