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Cambodia press gets it all wrong, pays the price
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1068 words
21 February 1996
Asia Times
(c) 1996 Chamber World Network International Ltd

Cambodia's newspapers, full of photos of disemboweled bodies and commentary comparing leaders to farmyard animals, are easy targets for those who want to restrict the freedom of the press. What worries many is that vague press laws are being used to shut down opposition papers, leaving the pro-government press untouched.

A series of incidents this month highlighted the issue.

First, a broadcaster at a Royalist radio station was shot in broad daylight on the streets of the capital. Then, a newspaper was shut down by the Interior Ministry, the first action under a clause in the press law that gives authorities the right to close papers without recourse to the courts. And finally, the government announced the creation of a board to monitor all press reports about Cambodia, replying to those deemed defamatory.

Human rights groups reacted to all three incidents with alarm - alarm that to some journalists seemed overblown, but that nonetheless reflected a deep malaise about the status of the free press in this fragile democracy. The attack on the radio broadcaster now seems at least as likely to be linked to his reputation for womanizing as to his politics, while the press board is in essence not unlike the spin control bodies maintained by most democratic governments around the world.

The closure of The Republic newspaper, shut down under Article 12 of the press law which allows closure for 30 days without recourse to the courts for reports which affect political stability and national security, is more worrying. "When Article 12 talks about political stability, what does that mean? I wish I knew," said Meas Dararith, editor-in-chief of the opposition Wat Phnom News.

Information Minister Ieng Mouly said he was preparing legislation that would define some of the more nebulous terms in Article 12. The 30-day suspension was simply to give the government and the paper time to prepare their court cases, he said. "It is up to the court to determine whether the government is right or wrong."

By his own account, the odds for the paper don't look great. "When our judges are paid US$20 or US$30 a month, I don't feel we can guarantee the independence of the judiciary," he said.

He denied, however, that the government was selective in its prosecution of opposition papers. "It happens that papers that are against the government use more bad language than pro-government papers," he said.

Some journalists feel that more professionalism would make it much harder for the government to hound down its opponents. One newspaper, The Combattant, was earlier this month charged with disinformation, incitement and defamation. "But what article, what disinformation, what incitement, what defamation, that we don't know," said one press organizer. "Just about anything most of the papers write are all of those things, so it is hard to guess."

Mouly, whose ministry oversees the press, agreed. "We have to be rather tolerant of what is in the papers. If we weren't tolerant, I think we would have to send all the newspapers to court."

He complained that journalists rarely took the time to check facts. "There was a point last year when I was in the papers every day, and no local journalist ever came to interview me. They just wrote any old thing," he said.

Sloppy reporting tops the list of complaints from editors, too.

Pen Samitthy, editor-in-chief of Rasmei Kampuchea Daily, which is widely acknowledged to be the best paper in Cambodia, held up a competitor's paper. "Look at this. Sixteen photos on the front page, all text on the back, and no news. They take two or three lines off a (news agency) wire, and then tack on 500 words of comment. Instead of constructive, well-documented criticism they use crazy words. In a country where democracy isn't yet well understood it is very dangerous."

To bad reporting, add a desperate shortage of funds - many of Cambodia's 50-plus registered newspapers publish only when they can afford to, selling at 400 riel (US$0.16) a copy.

"On the sort of money they make, you can hardly tell a journalist to hop a helicopter to check out a story. In fact, he can't even afford to get on a moto (taxi) and go to the ministry to check if the report you are about to publish is true," said one journalist. Cash crises mean editors are easily persuaded to cover a story or to close their eyes to one. "Bribes and blackmail are the name of the game," one said.

Cambodia has spent the past five years climbing out of a hole dug over several decades of mindless violence. Although United Nations-brokered elections have dressed the country up in a veil of democracy, open debate is still at a premium.

All papers are closely allied with political parties - in fact political party officials often edit papers - and accusations of defamation fly at the first sour word.

"For defamation, read critical," said one authority on the press.

"There is a tendency to take every article with a critical quote in it as a direct attack from the enemy - an attack that requires some response."

When Reuters news agency was accused, wrongly as it happened, of criticizing King Norodom Sihanouk, one local paper exhorted people to attack the Reuters office with sticks and stones.

And Second Prime Minister Hun Sen offered transport to villagers to help them trash the newsroom of a paper which had criticized his pet development project.

"We live in a free society," retorted Information Minister Mouly. "If journalists can incite people then its is also the Prime Minister's right to try to persuade people through words."

Samitthy, who is also vice-president of the League of Cambodian Journalists, said the organization had found itself in the uncomfortable position of advising people how to prosecute League members in court. "Otherwise, we were afraid there would be violence before it even got to court."

Journalists need more training and more resources, say press workers.

The United Nations and the Asia Foundation both have training programs, but some say they are not, in fact, reaching the people that most need to learn journalistic skills.

Copyright 1996 Asia Times.

(c) 1996 Chamber World Network International Ltd.

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