The Information Ministry has decided not to prepare a draft law on fake news and disinformation despite requests from within the government, and instead will focus on educating journalists on how to strengthen the public’s access to reliable information, according to minister Khieu Kanharith.
While presiding over the launch of the Khmer Version of a Unesco handbook titled “Journalism, ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation: A Handbook for Journalism Education and Training” on July 23, Kanharith said the ministry has taken into consideration the interests of all parties, and the importance of human rights. He said that at the start of the global Covid-19 outbreak, many government officials had called for the creation of a law to regulate fake news, but that it had been deemed unnecessary since Covid-19 is a temporary problem.
“If we created the law, we would find it difficult to set limits because this law would not protect joint interests, it would protect only individual interests and it would become an abuse of freedom of expression,” Kanharith said at the launching event.
He said that “fake news” is a normal occurrence in any society that allows freedom of expression, and he recognized that the prevalence of Facebook and YouTube means people can freely spread their own opinions.
Kanharith added that fake news can be constructive, because it will encourage people to be skeptical of information they see in social media posts or news stories, and will push them to verify the information with other sources, which will make them more well-informed.
Speaking with reporters after the event, Kanharith said the manual will be beneficial for journalists and others interested in responsible information sharing even after the Covid-19 pandemic has ended, although it is ultimately up to reporters to ensure they are not spreading disinformation.
“Do not think that all negative news is incorrect news or fake news,” Kanharith said.
When professional journalists report news accurately, those who are less professional will take notice, he said.
When a reporter asked him if the ministry will take action against journalists who make mistakes in their reporting, Kanharith said existing processes would be followed.
“The ministry is not judicial officials but if someone … interprets the information as negatively affecting their reputation, they can request the journalists make a correction or they can file a complaint to the court,” he said.
The Khmer version of “Journalism, ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation: A Handbook for Journalism Education and Training” will be available for free online for all journalists and journalism educators.
“It is an important knowledge product, not only for journalists and journalism students, but also for policymakers, decision-makers and the general public,” Unesco representative to Cambodia Sardar Umar Alam said during the event.
“Unfortunately, there is not a single magical formula or solution to address this challenge,” he said. “However, through collaboration and trust-building among all parties and stakeholders, keeping freedom of expression and human rights on high-priority, it is possible to minimize the impact of disinformation. Everyone has an important role to play in fighting false information and promoting verified, and fact-checked information.”
“Journalists must uphold professional standards for ethical and accountable journalism to fight against disinformation and misinformation,” Umar Alam said. “Ethical reporting is an essential skill for journalists today to avoid amplifying disinformation and restore the public’s trust in journalism and media.”
Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), said in a panel discussion about fake news and disinformation during the event that press freedom in Cambodia is better than in some countries in the region but restrictions and pressure on the media were a regular concern.
She said that when there are discussions about laws that could threaten freedom of the press and freedom of expression, those creating the legislation should consider if it is in the public’s interest, and how to guarantee human rights under such a law.
“I think that when we talk about fake news and disinformation, it’s a problem that I recognize. It is a difficult matter for those involved to decide which solutions we can provide to address the problem in a way that does not affect human rights,” Sopheap said. “It is necessary to prioritize human rights principles.”
She added that she supports the information ministry’s decision not to pursue a law preventing fake news, but to educate journalists and the public instead.
“When we disseminate [information] to journalists, citizens and involved parties to understand journalism, it can help them avoid fake news and disinformation without involving the law,” Sopheap said.
Phos Sovann, general-director of General Department of Information and Broadcasting at the Information Ministry said that at first, officials wanted to draft a law against fake news and disinformation, but that Khanarith denied his group’s request, saying it would be easier to deal with disinformation on a case-by-case basis. Sovann said that he agreed with the minister’s decision.
Sann Kalyan, national coordinator for Cambodia and Laos with Fojo Media Institute, said in a panel discussion that the handbook is an important tool for journalism education and that Fojo welcomes organizations that would like to coordinate training with Fojo.
“I hope that Cambodia will use this book as part of basic training for journalists,” Kalyan said.