Cambodian journalists and rights groups are voicing concern over the authoritarian government’s creation of a new committee to promote “journalism ethics and professional standards” with the power to discipline reporters.
The Monitoring Committee for Journalism Ethics Practice, launched on Monday, has spawned worries among journalists that it will be used by authorities as a tool to intimidate independent reporters and stifle critical coverage of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Cambodia, which ranks toward the bottom of global press freedom indexes, launched a crackdown in 2017 on independent media, civil society, and the opposition — closing several newspapers and expelling RFA from the country, and banning the main opposition party and arresting its leader.
The committee will review reports and complaints from the public or other media outlets against journalists and news organizations, as well as resolve disputes over journalistic ethics and professional standards among reporters or media outlets and individuals, government bodies, and other organizations.
The committee also has the power to summon any journalist or media outlet, and its recommendations can influence Cambodian Information Ministry decisions on punishing violations of ethics and professional standards.
Rights groups say the panel underscores the further erosion of freedom of expression under the government of Hun Sen, who has ruled the country of 16 million people since 1985. His Cambodian People’s Party holds all 125 seats in parliament, the result of banning the opposition before 2018 elections.
“The government still doesn’t understand that freedom of expression means that it isn’t the boss of journalists or the media,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“This is just another landmine planted to blow up on people reporting news that the government doesn’t like or on critics on social media,” he said. “The government should focus on the COVID crisis and rooting out corruption instead of harassing journalists.”
Since 2020, the government has prevented independent journalists from reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, blocked news sites, arrested journalists, and declared a state of emergency that gave it unprecedented power to censor traditional and online media, critics say.
Ranking Cambodia 144 among 180 countries in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, the media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders said “Cambodians now only have access to news provided by major media groups directly linked to Hun Sen, such as the online news agency Fresh News, which pumps out pro-government propaganda.”
Narrowing the space for journalists
Local freelance reporter May Tithara told RFA he feared the new panel “will become a burden to or put pressure on some independent journalists, if disciplinary measures are imposed against them or their media outlets without proper consultations among all committee members.”
Hang Samphors, managing director of the NGO Women’s Media Centre of Cambodia, told RFA that professional journalists should be protected, rather than subjected to disciplinary measures.
“Journalists play an important role in reporting real news for the public,” she said. “They serve as a bridge between the public and the state. Without journalists, real news and concerns from the public would never reach the state.”
“The more restrictions on journalists, the narrower the space for journalists to perform their work for the public,” she added.
The 15 members of the committee — led by Buth Bovuth, the Information Ministry’s secretary of state — are senior officials or advisors to the ministry and journalism experts.
The members include Nop Vy, head of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), an independent network formed by former reporters of the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post, which were forced to shut down during Hun Sen's crackdown.
Nop Vy told RFA he welcomed efforts to set and enforce professional ethics and standards, but said there must be transparent discussions prior to decisions on disciplinary measures against journalists or media outlets.
“If the committee performs its work without proper principles or a clear basis, it will solve problems or take measures based on its sentiment,” he said, noting that most of the body’s members are government representatives.
Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn said the new committee was created “not to put pressure on journalists or to target journalists for disciplinary measures,” but to direct journalists and media outlets on how to properly comply with journalistic codes of ethics and professional standards.
“For those who have improperly performed their work by failing to uphold the journalistic code of ethics and professionalism, the committee will examine whether to take disciplinary measures against them so as to give them orientation to perform their work properly … as determined by existing laws and legal instruments,” Meas Sophorn said.
“We will give commendations and encouragement to those journalists who properly perform their work,” he added.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.