A new access to information bill was discussed in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, World Press Freedom Day, with some raising hopes that it could be a positive step by the government towards redressing the balance of power when it comes to the media.
Cambodia has introduced several pieces of legislation in this term which have worried freedom of information and press freedom campaigners, such as the cyber crime law.
Anne Lemaistre, the country representative for Unesco, the UN cultural affairs body, said the right to access information in the public good was a basic right that should be afforded to all Cambodians, adding that increased transparency would also benefit the government in the long run.
Khieu Kanharith, the information minister, told reporters that the bill, consisting of nine chapters and 29 articles, was still under discussion.
The law will determine the obligations government institutions hold to respond to requests for access to public records.
Pen Bonar, Club of Cambodian Journalists president, said the law, if passed, would open space for more investigations into government activities.
“For journalists, we don’t have the rights to tie them up,” he joked. “However, an article could be so powerful that an official can either be demoted or promoted or imprisoned when journalists report irregularities or wrongdoings.
“This is the power of journalists who help provide positive impacts for the society.”
Cambodia ranked 128 of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 Press Freedom Index, released last month. It was a slight improvement on the 2015 ranking, suggesting journalists in the Kingdom were more at liberty to report freely than they had previously been. However, reporting on certain issues – particularly illegal logging and human trafficking still brought significant risk.
Cambodia ranked ahead of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in the study.
Pa Ngoun Teang, Cambodian Center for Independent Media executive director, said three factors had contributed to Cambodia’s apparent improving performance: fewer reporters being subjected to violence and intimidation; less political pressure on journalists and media institutions; and the worsening media environment in neighboring countries, such as Thailand.
“Due to political pressure, a lack of protection mechanisms, corrupt courts … journalists take a step back. Some journalists do not dare to touch on controversial issue. For instance, there’s a situation. We broadcast that there’s a campaign cracking down on deforestation. But whether the campaign is effective, where the wood is stored, the person involved, no one dares to do the investigation.”
While he was generally supportive of the bill, he was skeptical of government intentions.
The European Union said in a statement that it condemned “the increasing level of intimidation and violence that journalists, Human Rights Defenders, media actors and other individuals face in many countries across the world when exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression online and offline.”