While the minister of information applauded the freedom of the press in Cambodia Monday, local and international media watchdogs lamented the lack of independence in broadcast media and called for the creation of an autonomous body governing radio and television.
Marking World Press Freedom Day, which was observed internationally Sunday, Minister of Information and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said that the government needs independent journalists.
“The government does not expect or want all journalists to absolutely support the government,” the minister said in a speech Monday at the National Institute of Education.
“If all the journalists become tools of the government, the government itself will fail one day,” he said.
But while the country may have a myriad of views expressed in print, the free market of ideas is far narrower in Cambodia’s broadcast media.
Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia desk for international watchdog Reporters Without Borders, said in an e-mail Monday that the CPP-dominated government keeps radio and television broadcasters on a tight leash.
“The ruling party has accepted elections and multi-party politics, but they don’t want to lose their power,” Mr Brossel said. “And to open media—especially TV and radios—is a real big challenge.”
In a briefing released over the weekend, local human rights group Licadho said that Cambodian print media offer a relatively wide range of viewpoints, even though most Khmer-language newspapers are aligned with one political party or another.
“However,” the paper continued, “given the country’s relatively low literacy rates, problems with distribution of print media and cost of print media for the average Cambodian, broadcast media are the way most people get their news and broadcast media is generally strictly controlled.”
According to Licadho President Kek Galabru, each of Cambodia’s eight television channels is directly aligned with the CPP.
“They are not independent, not neutral,” she said Monday, pointing out that although Cambodia boasts at least two apparently neutral radio stations—Beehive Radio and the Women’s Media Center—the Ministry of Information has suspended the licenses of two radio stations in the last year for broadcasting opposition parties’ programs.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Monday that it is nearly impossible for broadcast media to remain independent when the Ministry of Information retains the power of granting and revoking television and radio licenses. Ms Kek Galabru echoed that recommendation. Giving licensing powers to a branch of government “is not very democratic,” she said.
The suggestion of an independent licensing body was also endorsed by Mr Brossel. “It is the best solution and the international community should push for that,” he said.
When asked to comment on the independence of broadcast media Monday, Mr Khieu Kanharith asked for questions to be e-mailed to him, but he did not immediately respond to those e-mailed questions.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan denied Monday that the government puts any pressure on television or radio stations.
“They operate by themselves…. The owners can do what they like to do,” he said.