Ou Sokuntheary is a newspaper vendor near Independence Monument in Phnom Penh. She reads the paper nearly every day, and most of her interest in the news is that of the security, development and planning in the capital—the things that affect her everyday life.
But, she said Tuesday, that flow of information is likely to be greatly reduced, thanks to the municipality’s ban on journalists attending City Hall’s weekly meetings.
Ou Sokuntheary and others interviewed following the announcement of the ban made Monday by Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema said they believed that reporting on the weekly meetings helped keep them informed.
“Such a ban is not good,” she said. “Making people blind and deaf without knowing any information involving their lives.”
The ban on journalists reminded her of her own experience last year, when a city project to extend the road she works on caused her to be ejected from her streetside location, Ou Sokuntheary said. Back then, she said, she and others had read about the city’s plan and were able to assemble and protest.
“It was lucky for the paper printing the story,” she said, adding that if there was not information, the vendors and residents would have been forced to follow a government order without the right to speak against it.
“Our country is a democracy, so we must know what the authorities are doing in their dealings with us,” she said.
Klaing Huot, governor of Tuol Kok district, said this week he was unaware of the ban on journalists.
On Monday Kep Chuktema said City Hall did not have to be open like the National Assembly, citing the Council of Ministers’ decision more than one year ago to close its meetings to journalists as well.
The decision was made by the new governor alone, and was not passed through deputy governors, said First Deputy Governor Than Sina, who declined to comment further.
Klaing Huot said such a ban could harm the government’s policy of transparency and would leave the city’s residents in the dark on aspects of their daily lives.
The weekly meetings were only focused on projects of development or that strengthened people’s security and are not on a national level, such as matters that go before the Council of Ministers, he said, so there is nothing to hide from the public.
“Here is not the Council of Ministers. There is no secret,” Klaing Huot said. “It’s just local development.”
A 43-year-old resident living in a squatter area of Tonle Bassac commune said she rarely reads the paper, because she cannot afford it, but her husband, who drives motorcycle taxis, sometimes brings a paper home to read.
City news stories can educate the people faster than civil servants, she said, remembering a story she had read last year with her husband that warned of the dangers of chemical treatments of vegetables.
A warning to city residents not to use harmful chemicals had come from the municipality, but she had heard it from the newspapers, she said.
“I knew this information by the paper,” she said. “The city official was not able to inform me, or everybody, as well.”
Not everyone agrees.
For Ching Phengsroy, a 29-year-old private teacher, it is the right of civil servants to ban journalists from access to information they are not happy to see printed.
“There must be a spokesman to tell the journalists about the meeting,” he said, adding, though, that if meeting results were not state secrets, they should be revealed.
Chapter 1, Article 4, of Cambodia’s press law says reporters have the right to report “official information such as statements, meetings, meeting minutes or reports, etc.” as long as “such publication is fully true or an accurate summary of the truth.”
Several Phnom Penh deputy governors said Tuesday the new policy was meant to strengthen City Hall’s security, following a break-in there earlier this month.
The break-in, which damaged a newly built meeting room, had angered the governor, the deputies said.
Still, one deputy said, the move would weaken the city’s ability to disseminate information.
“In fact, the journalist is helping the city inform the public,” said the deputy governor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The journalists never cause any trouble for the city.”
“This is a new principle,” said Deputy Governor Map Sarin. “But I am not clear about the reason.”
The city will continue to have a spokesman or cabinet official to inform journalists about City Hall decisions, he said.
That’s little consolation for Ou Sokuntheary, who said she fears that now she could be swept off the street by another city ordinance without any prior warning.
“So, police would come and confiscate all my belongings here,” she said, pointing to the street and her newsstand. “I think the governor should change his word.”