Media laws continue to be one of the most used means of restricting a free press in many countries in the world, a group of prominent media experts says.
While access to information has opened up through other means, such laws continue to hamper the free press, according to a report by the watchdog group Freedom House.
“I think it is quite serious, because media is one of the key elements in creating and maintaining a healthy democracy,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, managing editor of “Freedom of the Press,” an annual index from Freedom House that tracks media issues. “If media freedom has been curtailed, people don’t have access to important information, and that could be political information, that could also be economic information, or health information or other very important information, with which to conduct their lives.”
The media can help people make decisions in an election or fight corruption, and they improve transparency, she said.
Karlkekar spoke to VOA Khmer following a discussion in Washington of a new Freedom House report, “License to Censor: The Use of Media Regulation to Restrict Press Freedom,” which was released last month.
Meanwhile, other journalists and media observers say the free press remains vulnerable, even though it is an important part of democracy.
At a separate event in Washington recently, Christiane Amanpour, news anchor for ABC’s “This Week” broadcast and former chief international correspondent for CNN, told VOA Khmer that democracy “cannot be strong without a fundamentally independent, rigorous fair and free press which reports without fear nor favor, whether it’s here in the United States or around the world.”
“I believe journalism is on the cutting edge of emerging democracies and in the center of a developed democracy like the United States, where journalists and journalism is called the Fourth Estate,” she said, referring to the media’s role oversight role toward the other three branches of US government.
“It’s a very dangerous profession,” she added. “Journalists being killed, journalists being detained, journalists being wounded and imprisoned, and all because [their opponents] want to silence the truth.”
Freedom House has designated Cambodia’s media as “not free,” and other critics point to unfair elections, land grabs and other impunity as evidence of slowing democratic progress.
However, government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia’s media environment is improving, especially in the rights to give and receive information.
“The government does not control information,” he said. “There is free media, and no censorship.”
He pointed to the 105 FM Beehive Radio station as airing criticism of the government and others “as freely as possible.” He also noted that Cambodia’s media has improved in avoiding personal attacks and focusing on political issues.
“In a democratic society, the government comes from the people,” he said. “We know the government has already provided opportunities for the media to serve the public with news of integrity. But journalists must learn how to survive, which means providing news with integrity and delivering information without defamation or attack.”
Karlkekar, of Freedom House, however, said that Cambodia press freedom remains “restricted.” One of the reasons it has been labeled as “not free,” she said, is the ongoing use of defamation laws and other legislative restrictions against journalists.
“What we’ve seen is the increased use over the last few years of laws to then punish people who are publishing reports on certain topics that the government doesn’t want,” she said.
And while Cambodia is “much freer” than its neighbors, she said, there are still concerns over a limited diversity of media outlets and a small number of outlets that are “truly independent,” she said. “We look at also the way influences are being used over those outlets by various factions.”
Anwar Iqbal, a correspondent for the Pakistan-based Dawn TV, said in countries like Pakistan and Cambodia, where there have been former dictatorships, the public believes governments have the right to control information.
However, he said, every individual has the right to speak. “If you see something, you have the right to praise it, and you have the right to criticize it. That is what freedom is all about.”
The media’s job is “not to correct something,” he said. “It’s our job to report something as we see it, and therefore we are demanding a basic right.”
A free media has the right to determine what is news and what isn’t, he said. “It should not be told by the government or anybody else what to do. It should be the decision of the journalist who is covering a particular event, and he or she should be free to report that particular event as he or she saw it.”
Steven Strasser, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, said governments often try to silence the media and conceal the truth.
“They regard the media power as a threat,” he said. “They regard media as an institution which has a major impact on national security. So there will be media laws in place like this. There will be media laws in place where any government can’t be comfortable with just a free rein of the press.”
However, he said, governments should foster a self-regulating press, rather than force media to serve the interest of a government or other group.