Khmer Times/Jonathan Greig Wednesday, 20 April 2016
RSF’s map of press freedom. Reporters Without Borders
Cambodia ranked 128th in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2015 ranking of press freedom in countries across the world, the watchdog said yesterday on its website.
RSF, which has been compiling the rankings yearly since 2002, said press freedom worldwide had seen a disturbing downturn as governments attempted to crack down on print and online news dissemination.
“The climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism, a clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments, and reporting in the privately-owned media that is increasingly shaped by personal interests,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.
“Guaranteeing the public’s right to independent and reliable news and information is essential if humankind’s problems, both local and global, are to be solved.”
Using journalistic independence, self-censorship, transparency, abuses and a number of other criteria, RSF compiles its list after sending out surveys to reporters and lawyers in every country.
Despite the low ranking, Cambodia actually rose 11 spots compared with last year. But RSF said reporters, especially those covering illegal logging and trafficking of any kind, still faced government stonewalling and overt threats of violence from powerful stakeholders within the country. RSF also mentioned the highly controversial Telecommunications Law, which they say has the “aim of closely regulating Internet use.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan had not read the report, but dismissed claims that the Telecom Law was intended to stifle dissent, saying its purpose was to protect privacy and prevent hacking.
“The draft law is not a threat to freedom of speech,” he said.
Executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) Chak Sopheap said it will have an effect on journalists’ ability to cover difficult issues plaguing the country.
“While the implementation is yet to be seen, it is likely that this law is intended to provide the government with yet another tool to crack down on freedom of expression, which of course will impact independent journalists disproportionately,” she said.
Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media Pa Nguon Teang echoed Ms. Sopheap’s comments last year, when he said: “The Internet, once Cambodia’s last open and free medium for press freedom and free expression, is now becoming increasingly restrictive and subject to government controls that have for so long limited the country’s mainstream media.”
In spite of the disagreements over the Telecoms law, Mr. Siphan said he was pleased to hear that Cambodia had climbed in the ranking.
“I think it is important to evaluate Cambodia in a regional context,” he said. “There is more freedom of the press here than elsewhere in the region,” he explained, saying journalists are free to report “without fear or favor.”
“The government always respects freedom of speech and does not censor,” Mr. Siphan added. He also said ministries were working to improve communications with the media by appointing and “empowering” spokespeople.
The prime minister is also using social media to create direct communications with the public, Mr. Siphan added.
Undersecretary at the Ministry of Information Ouk Kimseng acknowledged that covering illegal logging was dangerous, but said journalists had to be aware of the risks involved in their job.
“I think that if reporters want to be careful, they should not go into the forest searching for illegal logging alone,” he said. “They should go with a group of people and not just go alone.”
Ms. Sopheap of CCHR said Cambodia’s continually low ranking was not surprising at all.
“Cambodia is a dangerous place to be an independent journalist, with brave journalists regularly risking their lives and liberty,” she said, citing the deaths of 13 journalists for their reporting since 1994.
“We have seen a spike in threats and arrests against social media commentators as Internet penetration increases exponentially across Cambodia. The huge proportion of media outlets which are owned by individuals who are well connected to the ruling party also undoubtedly contributed to this ranking,” she added.
For the situation to improve, Ms. Sopheap said the government should enact the Access to Information Law, which she said would “improve transparency and offer better protection to journalists.”
But most importantly, she believes press freedom lies in the hands of the government and the country’s judicial system.
“For Cambodia to enjoy genuine press freedom, the judiciary and government need to stop targeting those who dare to expose corruption and criticize the powerful,” she said.
Additional Reporting by Srey Kumneth