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Provincial Governor in Cambodia Knocked for Plan to Combat 'Nonsense News'

FILE - Cambodian and foreign journalists watch a live-feed video in a press room at the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, Feb. 3, 2012.
FILE - Cambodian and foreign journalists watch a live-feed video in a press room at the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, Feb. 3, 2012.

Journalists and Cambodia's information minister have publicly rejected a plan by a provincial governor to compel the media to report their activities to local authorities.

Mao Thonin, the recently appointed governor of the southern coastal province of Kampot, ordered the provincial information department to ramp up monitoring of journalists. His remarks, made at an internal meeting, were widely shared — and derided — on social media in mid-November.

In the two-minute video clip, the governor said that journalists should go through the information department before reporting in the province and ordered authorities to "watch closely" and "take action" against those who showed up without approval.

"[You] can't just write and speak to exaggerate. I listen every night and it almost makes my head ache," Mao Thonin said. "Nonsense news affects the reputation and images of our leaders."

His comments came the same week that two journalists were arrested in his province while covering protests related to land disputes outside the city hall.

A video of his remarks to the November 2 meeting circulated on social media, Cambodian journalists and the country's information minister have said the plan may be unconstitutional and that informing authorities of travel plans could put sources at risk.

Media impact

At a seminar on press guidelines in November, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said that Thonin's directive was "wrong" and likely unconstitutional.

"One provincial governor said journalists must inform authorities whenever they go to report in the area so that they know. It is wrong," he said.

The minister cited Article 40 of Cambodia's Constitution, which respects a citizen's right to travel, and added, "They have the right to go wherever they want to. They are not required to inform us."

Mech Dara, a journalist at the media outlet Voice of Democracy, told VOA that authorities have previously demanded "a mission letter" when he reports in the provinces, which he said made his work difficult.

Notifying authorities in advance could pose a risk to sources, especially for investigative reporting, the journalist said. "We can't inform local authorities when we go to [province] to report," he said.

Freelance journalist Vann Vichar echoed those concerns, calling on authorities to consider journalists as "a development partner" rather than "a thorn in the eye."

"If it is an absolute order from the provincial governor, I can't accept it since it violates rights to freedom of journalists and rights of citizens' traveling," he told VOA.

Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said that informing authorities in advance could affect the quality of news and potentially allow authorities to change the facts on the ground.

"When they report to the authorities where they go, authorities can set up the scene. Therefore, it can't be factual," he said.

Media arrests

The Kampot governor's comments came as journalists, many of whom publish online or via social media, covered land disputes and arrests in his province.

Two journalists from LSN News TV, an online outlet that mostly publishes via Facebook, were charged with incitement after they streamed a live broadcast of the disputes and protests in front of City Hall in Kampot and interviewed residents.

Authorities often use a charge of incitement to silence critics and journalists, according to local human rights defenders.

Kampot provincial police issued a statement the next day accusing the journalists of "attacking police's measures" and failing to contact police for "accurate information" before reporting on the land dispute.

The journalists were released and placed under court supervision for six months, according to Luos Seng, publisher of LSN News TV.

"The charge against my colleagues was to intimidate journalists and break reporters' spirit," he said.

Cambodia's information minister said the media arrests were wrong.

Mao Thonin declined to comment when contacted by a VOA Khmer, referring questions to Ork Samnang, director of Kampot's information department.

Ork Samnang said he was unsure whether he should implement the governor's speech, which he said might convey "a problem of lacking understanding" from the governor about media rights.

"I will try to explain to him. I believe in his leadership," he said of the governor. "His approach is good, but it affects freedom of the press."

Cambodia's critical media have come under pressure in recent years, says media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. The country ranks 144 out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest, on the RSF press freedom index.

The arrests in Kampot continue a trend that worries press freedom advocates.

In a report released earlier this year, the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association said the country's "Criminal Code remains a powerful legal tool, which is too often used to intimidate and jail journalists."