3 May 2021
To mark World Press Freedom Day, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) is today recognizing the vital services journalists undertake across Cambodia and the difficulties they endure.
From daily news to months-long investigations, spanning celebrity updates to accounts of pain and injustice, journalists work to provide readers the latest information and help them learn about the institutions and society around them.
Amid Cambodia’s worst Covid-19 outbreak to date, we reflect on the critical need for journalists, and the risks we endure to do our job.
Journalists have persevered through lockdown, turning their homes into newsrooms in order to keep citizens informed and officials accountable at this stressful time. Some have ventured out to document accounts from vulnerable populations, putting themselves at risk of infection in order to record images of the lockdown and voices of those impacted by it.
The government’s decision to provide journalists early and easy access to vaccines was a welcome move in recognition of the risks of reporting during the outbreak. However, the OPCC is concerned that aspects of Covid-19 restrictions could be used to prevent the flow of information or limit reporters’ movements.
There has also been a drought of information about the outbreak, and concerns that crucial information has not been released to the media or public. Media briefings with the Ministry of Health and other relevant agencies have been limited and short, while journalists have struggled to get information from public servants, including spokespeople.
The OPCC is also alarmed to see a number of media outlets lose their broadcast licenses and endure jail sentences over “fake news” allegations. Prum San, a news publisher and ex-advisor to the Ministry of Information, lost his license and advisor role after publishing a mistaken photo on his personal Facebook page, which he allegedly removed after 10 minutes. In one extraordinary case, Shen Kaidong, the publisher of Chinese-language news outlet Angkor Today, was deported for writing about an alleged vaccine sale scheme.
Corrections are necessary when a journalist realizes they reported false information, but in these cases the punishment given seems to outweigh the potential harm done.
In addition, the OPCC understands the need to limit the number of people allowed to traverse Phnom Penh during a lockdown. However we are concerned that the Ministry of Information’s ad hoc reporter permit measures may be used to exclude journalists based on their affiliations or previous coverage of sensitive topics.
Beyond the pandemic, Cambodia’s clampdown on independent media has slowly tightened. Reporters Without Borders gave Cambodia a slightly lower score on its most recent World Press Freedom Index, though its rank stagnated at 144 out of 180 countries.
Journalists, and in particular Cambodian journalists, endured a sustained threat of violence, intimidation and legal action for their work. The Cambodian Journalists Alliance recorded 35 cases of harassment against 72 journalists last year.
Journalists were barred from and intimidated away from covering protests last year, and the OPCC remains concerned about an unclear police directive that would allegedly ban journalists from recording police activity.
The OPCC is also concerned about persistent legal threats against journalists. Early this year, a prosecutor appealed the provincial court case against former Cambodia Daily journalists Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter after the original complainant dropped their claim. And last year, the Supreme Court ruled to reinvestigate the case against former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin. The OPCC is alarmed that the courts have dragged on cases stemming back to 2017 with little evidence presented as to why the cases should be extended.
The OPCC believe the following measures will ensure a more free press in Cambodia and allow journalists to report the news in the public interest:
- Allow journalists and news organizations to operate openly and freely, without pressure or threats that inhibit our work.
- Ensure reasonable and fair application of lockdown-era restrictions on journalists, and allow those with travel permits to traverse safely throughout their territories.
- Nullify emergency restrictions on journalists’ movement at the end of the lockdown.
- End the use of the penal code to prosecute journalists in relation to our work and instead use the Press Law, if and only if prosecution is warranted.
- Ensure press freedom by requesting retractions, corrections or clarifications in news reports believed to include factually incorrect or misleading statements in line with Article 10 of the Press Law, rather than dealing swift and unjust punishment to alleged offenders.
- Promote an environment that encourages journalists to abide by ethical principles, journalistic standards and our profession’s mission, to serve the public with news and information
Emergencies like the current Covid-19 outbreak in Cambodia require a degree of restrictions on rights, but those restrictions should never advance to the point where press freedom and government transparency regarding public health, safety and food security decisions are neglected.
The OPCC urges the Cambodian government to embrace a “new normal” in its relations with journalists, which includes increased freedom from violence and legal harassment and greater access to information for Cambodian and international journalists who keep the public informed.
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If you wish to download the statement in PDF format please use this link: