By Moeun Chhean Nariddh
On the walls of the news room and broadcast studio of a pro-government TV station in Phnom Penh, a warning sign clearly reads: “Banned from broadcasting: Stories on human rights and land disputes.”
So, when the Cambodian government made an announcement last week banning foreign radio programs from broadcasting on local FM stations for 31 days of the pre-election campaign period, it sent a clear message that the government does not allow its people to hear any “negative” stories on matters such as human rights and the election.
Although the government over the weekend reversed the ban, the media blackout would have been a great loss for all sectors of the society, including the public, the media and the government itself.
First, professional media like Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Radio France International serve as the mirror of the government to reflect on its performance so that it can improve itself. The original decision to ban the three international broadcasters from broadcasting on local radio stations is no different from breaking the mirror.
At face value, presence of the three international programs in Cambodia is an important sign that the government needs to show that it is still upholding democratic principles by allowing some kind of press.
Second, the news produced by the three international radio programs is of a very high professional standard and can only be produced by journalists with high professional skills. The local radio stations that RFA, VOA and RFI have broadcast their news programs on not only receive quality news for free but they also earn a much-needed revenue to support themselves. The three international broadcasters also serve as a role model for local journalists both in terms of the limit of press freedom and how professional news items are produced.
It’s an irony that virtually all government officials have listened to these international radio programs for uncensored and professional news. Local radio stations cannot hire highly skilled and professional journalists like those working at RFA, VOA and RFI to produce quality news.
Third, the Cambodian people, particularly registered voters, badly need balanced news from the three international broadcasters during the election period so that they can make more informed decisions on election day on July 28. Even supporters of the ruling party also need to know the other side of the stories apart from those produced by the pro-government media outlets so that they can help protect the party they support from any criticism.
In a democratic society, nothing is worse than depriving people of their legitimate right to access to news and information during the election period.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director, Cambodia Institute for Media Studies in Phnom Penh