Despite ongoing efforts to train government spokespersons, media experts say a shortage of official spokespeople leaves the public in the dark about many government activities.
“The number of spokespersons is still small,” said Pen Samitthy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, in a recent interview.
Mr Samitthy cited acute deficiencies at the provincial and municipal level, but said “it would be better if all government institutions have more spokespersons.”
Meas Kim Suon, director of the Media Training Center at the Ministry of Information, said three donor-supported spokesperson training courses have been offered since last July, with the most recent one held earlier this month.
A total of 92 officials from various ministries went through the classes, according to Mr Kim Suon. He didn’t know if any had been appointed spokespersons afterward.
“The government wants to facilitate good contact with the press and government officials, ensuring the flow of information to the public,” he said.
Mr Kim Suon acknowledged some ministries fail to fill vacated spokesperson posts.
“Some ministries appoint spokespersons, but when that person is promoted to another position nobody takes over,” he said.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said spokespersons serve a vital role, though he did not know how many had been appointed by the government.
Government bodies “must have a spokesperson or media relations officer because a minister or director general is not the person who needs to give information to the press,” he said.
In January of last year, Mr Kanharith called on all ministries to appoint spokespersons.
“Journalists just call directly to some ministers for information,” he said at the time. “Only journalists in Cambodia do that; it never has happened in other countries.
In December, the National Police announced it would name its first-ever spokesperson. A few months later, in July, the Ministry of Defense created and filled the same post.
Nonn Pheany, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Land Management, said spokespersons are important to her ministry’s duties.
“There are a lot of relevant and complicated issues in technical aspects of construction areas that we need to have spokespersons for to clarify information to investors and the public,” she said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, lauded efforts by the government to train more spokespersons. But he said clear guidelines are needed on what spokespersons can and can’t discuss.
“In some cases, spokespersons cannot decide what kind of information is within their authority to give to the media,” he said. “Sometimes even simple information that is not really confidential is not given to the public.”
Mr Nariddh said a new law is needed to punish those spokespersons who fail to share information.
“We need the adoption of a freedom of information law,” he said. “Because what happens is if the government or the spokesperson refuses to give information to the public, they will not be punished.”
(Additional reporting by Clancy McGilligan)