Government Spokespersons Get Lessons in Handling the Press

“Sometimes you threaten the journalist: ‘Don’t publish this. If you publish this, you will have a problem.’ Then tomorrow, the journalist will print this.”

That was just one of the scenarios presented at the start of a two-day workshop that began yesterday in Phnom Penh to train more than 100 government spokespersons to deal with questions from the media.

Co-hosted by the ministries of Interior and Information, as well as the German political foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the workshop’s aim is to establish official government spokespersons at the provincial and municipal levels throughout Cambodia.

While the Council of Ministers and ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Land Management already have dedicated spokespersons, many ministries operate opaquely and have very little communication with the press. The National Assembly and the Sen­ate also lack people dedicated to liaise with the media.

Speaking on the sidelines of the workshop yesterday, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith ad­dressed the lack of designated ministerial spokespersons at the national level and questioned the effectiveness of existing ones.

“We have spokesmen in the ministries, but they don’t have ex­perience to provide information to journalists. Thus, they turn off their telephones to avoid talking to them,” he said.

Addressing the workshop, Mr. Kanharith also urged spokespersons to control the flow of information, especially when it comes to harmful rumors.

“We are not propaganda for a political party…but we have to get rid of what is in doubt, what is causing chaos,” Mr. Kanharith said, adding that the use of the Internet and social media website Facebook has made this task more difficult.

Although spokespersons on a national and provincial level are still scarce, reporters are able to talk freely to many senior officials and, in some cases, even the minister. Defense Minister Tea Banh and Industry, Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem often respond to reporters over the telephone.

Nonetheless, an institutionalized response network within the government is still a long way off.

“There’s no real culture of having spokespersons at the sub-national level,” said Denis Schrey, country representative for Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, which runs programs to strengthen sub-national government in more than 100 countries.

“There needs to be a lot of capacity building and coaching to prov­inces to fulfill their role effectively. So it’s just the start of a long-term process we are talking about.”

To regulate how provincial government spokespersons operate, Sok Sothy, chief of the Interior Ministry’s education office, said the government was currently drafting a new bylaw on the “Roles and Duties of the Team in Charge of Administrative Information.”

The draft law outlines the type of information that should not be shared with the media and public.

According to Article 6 of the draft law, provincial spokespersons should not disseminate information related to court documents; court cases under investigation; individuals involved in court cases; anything that could pose a threat to national security, public order, the efforts of law-enforcement officials or relations with other countries; and personal details that would infringe on the rights of any individual.

“The [provincial and municipal] information officials have no re­sponsibility to spread information to people or journalists when they concern the secret issues of the government,” Mr. Sothy said.

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