Journalists and media observers have raised concern over a spate of restrictions from government agencies regarding access to information.
In recent months, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the Ministry of Environment, and Phnom Penh Municipality have announced to reporters changes in public relations policy that appear to place limits on communication between the government and the news media.
But while some defend this as conducive to regularizing government relationships with the media, others claim that a lack of qualified or responsive spokespeople all but ensures an obstruction of transparency.
Khieu Navy, editor-in-chief of the pro-CPP newspaper Kampuchea Thmei Daily, said a lack of spokespeople forced his reporters to seek information directly from officials who frequently refuse to comment. Mr Navy pointed to the municipality’s crackdown on police-reporter communication earlier this month as having caused difficulties.
“Since the municipality made the restriction, my reporters haven’t been able to access information related to, for instance, [recent] drug raids and sex toys raids. The police dare not provide information,” he said. “It’s really impacting the freedom of information. It’s banning information, and the public wants to access the news.”
While governor Kep Chuktema justified the clampdown as a way to preserve the integrity of cases still under investigation, Mr Navy disputed the explanation. He said he feared the recent City Hall restriction would create a window for corruption between officials and perpetrators during media silence.
“It can create opportunities for officers. Some officers will take this opportunity to make deals with perpetrators and release them quietly,” he said. “To avoid this, City Hall should set up spokesmen.”
But a lack of sufficient human resources may be hurting the process. Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, spokesman for the government, said public relations and spokesperson training had been expanded to the provincial level in recent years with the intention of placing qualified public relations officers at all ministries and administrative, army and police departments. There are still holes, he said.
“No, not every ministry has spokesmen,” he said. Mr Kanharith said there had been no official change in policy handed down from his ministry but suggested that a lack of spokesmen might put other officials in a precarious position.
“When you have [public relations] officers, they are available to speak.”
At the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, officials said yesterday they were no longer able to speak without submitting a letter of request to high-level officials.
This followed a series of articles published in February about the apparent censoring of anti-government websites, which quoted from an e-mail sent from within the ministry asking ISPs “[p]lease take an action” to block the sites.
The message was sent in the name of Sieng Sithy, deputy director of telecommunications regulation at the ministry.
“If you want data or information you can write a letter for submission to my boss, which is much easier,” he said yesterday. “Also, we are busy at work, too.”
Mr Sithy said the new policy for submitting questions was simply “an administration procedure.” But, he added, “some of them [journalists] make us scared to speak again,” he said, declining to comment further.
Though it goes back much further, the Ministry of Environment has a similar guideline in which officials are asked not to speak with the news media unless they have written permission, said deputy Cabinet chief, Meng Savuth.
“We’ve had that policy for years but we recently reeducated our officials,” said Mr Savuth. Questions asked by the media “cannot be answered within a day. It takes a week or ten days,” he said, adding that last year the Ministry appointed a spokesman, Sen Saroeun, who can be reached for a fast response.
However, he often must get permission to answer questions from reporters, Mr Saroeun said.
“If the question is significant, I need time to check with our specialists and get approval from His Excellency Mok Mareth,” said Mr Saroeun, explaining that matters pertaining to the government’s development policy fell under that heading.
Pen Samitthy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said last week that the need to improve communications between the government and the media was a matter of concern but he added that the government had made significant strides.
“The access to information is not yet enough but it is in progress,” he said. “We can see some ministries are creating their own websites and update them more often than before…but it’s not yet enough to satisfy journalists and the general public.”