Cambodia’s Ministry of Information has issued new media restrictions on discussing law, ordering TV and radio stations to use only legal commentators assigned by the national bar association as guests on their shows.
Independent media outlets who received the notice Friday said the new rules are aimed at further muzzling freedom of the press in Cambodia, which has faced criticism for the lack of independence of its judiciary.
A statement by Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith dated Jan. 31 directed radio and TV outlets to ask the bar association to assign lawyers to their shows, saying the move was aimed at curbing “misinterpretation” of the law.
“The Ministry of Information would like to inform all radio and television stations that some stations have invited lawyers on their shows to discuss laws or issues related to reform of the judicial system in Cambodia for public education, and the Ministry has appreciated that.”
“But in order to avoid any negative consequences arising from misinterpretation of the law and to ensure the quality of your shows, the Ministry advises all radio and television stations to ask the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia to assign guest speakers,” it said.
The statement did not specify any consequences for broadcasters who choose their own legal commentators.
Pa Ngounteang, president of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media and director of the center’s Voice of Democracy Radio, said the move was meant as another form of censorship on top of restrictions independent broadcasters already face.
“The ministry wants to control us, and we will face more problems [from the new rules],” he said.
“What happens if they don’t give us permission?” he asked, while adding that it is clear the instructions will hinder media outlets from getting lawyers to discuss legal issues, such as judicial reforms or legal advice.
Bun Hun, president of the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said the association would provide lawyers to media outlets upon request.
“What all the radio and television stations have to do is write a proposal to the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia stating their topics and their schedule, and we will respond accordingly.”
He said the association has told its members to seek approval before participating in any shows.
Rights groups have criticized the bar association for being closely affiliated with and controlled by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and say that lawyers in the country work in a repressive environment.
Some lawyers complain of harassment for representing the country’s poor in land-grab cases or in other disputes involving the well-connected.
Kay Kimsong, editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper’s Khmer language edition, which runs a column featuring lawyers and their careers, said that lawyers should be able to talk about their profession in the media without any restrictions.
“We have treated lawyers the same as other sources such as businessmen and other professions,” he said.
Rights groups say Cambodia’s media controls are stricter for broadcast outlets than for print journalism, which reaches a smaller segment of the population.
Last year, authorities jailed Mam Sonando, director of the independent Beehive Radio, on charges of masterminding a secessionist plot on charges that critics say were politically motivated.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.