A media group in Cambodia has launched a campaign to promote ethical journalism with the aim of improving reporting standards in the country, but rights groups say the organization lacks independence from the ruling government party and seeks to clamp down on freedom of expression.
The Cambodian Journalist Council for Ethics (CJCE) implemented the two-year campaign last week, saying it will focus on improving journalism at the country’s leading five newspapers and nine television stations.
Media organizations targeted by the campaign, the first of its kind in Cambodia, are newspapers Raksmey Kampuchea, Koh Santepheap, Kampuchea Thmei, and opposition party-affiliated journal Khmer Conscience, as well as television stations Cambodian Television Network (CTN), Apsara, Bayon, TV3, and TV9.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, speaking at the campaign’s launch last week in Phnom Penh, said it is needed to improve the skills of nonprofessional journalists and to curb “corruption” amongst journalists and the practice of “writing stories to provoke a problem.”
But he stressed that Cambodia is a democracy with laws that provide for freedom of expression and said that the government would only make recommendations that the CJCE advise the media organizations when their journalists have overstepped their bounds.
“Journalists have their freedom—the ministry won’t interfere,” Khieu Kanharith said, adding that any institution or private company which believes a reporter has reported a story inaccurately has the right to pursue a correction or a lawsuit.
CJCE deputy president Kim Sokuntheary said the campaign will monitor for balanced stories and investigate allegations that reporters have accepted bribes in exchange for writing an article.
“We are hoping that through the campaign we can help media outlets provide accurate, independent, and balanced information for listeners,” she said.
Puy Kea, a Cambodian correspondent with Japan’s Kyodo News Agency based in Phnom Penh who helped to organize the campaign, highlighted the importance of teaching ethics in journalism.
“Some journalists have abused their codes of conduct. We want journalists to maintain independence,” he said.
CTN Deputy Director Som Chaya told RFA that he supports the campaign.
“Without a code of ethics, journalism will suffer,” he said.
Some groups have questioned the motives of the CJCE in launching the campaign, saying that the organization lacks independence because it is subject to influence by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People Party (CPP).
The CJCE, which was established following a 2010 United Nations-backed national conference on the ethics of journalism in Cambodia, is comprised of several veteran journalists and senior members of a number of different media organizations. The council’s aim is to improve ethical practices and professionalism of the media and thereby reduce potential harm to journalists.
But Pang Ngoun Teang, director of the radio broadcaster Voice of Democracy and the Cambodia Center for Independent Media, expressed concern that the CJCE could be influenced by the CPP to clamp down on voices of dissent in the media.
“I think this [campaign] is a new approach, but I am concerned about the council’s practices,” he said.
“If the council doesn’t maintain independence, it will become an institution that censors press freedom.”
Cambodia-based rights group Adhoc said in a report last October that freedom of the press in Cambodia has increasingly declined, with reporters who expose government corruption and other illegal activity coming under deadly attack and facing death threats, including from the authorities.
Those killed or receiving threats were mostly reporters who had written articles exposing government corruption or documenting the relationships between powerful government officials and the illegal logging industry, the report said.
At least a dozen journalists have been killed in Cambodia in the nearly two decades since U.N.-backed elections were held following decades of civil war.
According to the U.N., reporters in Cambodia face challenges such as low salaries, lack of access to information, lack of formal journalism training, and limited protection from legal and physical harassment.
As a member state, Cambodia is obligated to protect and promote freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ICCPR.
Reported by To Serey for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.