Press freedom groups and foreign donors on Friday discussed the potential benefits and goals of establishing a national press council, including developing a standardized code of ethics for journalists nationwide and promoting public trust and self-regulation in the industry.
National press councils typically consist of independent media practitioners and journalists who set industry standards and hold publishers accountable through self-regulation as a means to avert unwarranted government interference.
Ith Sothoeuth, acting executive director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said a press council would increase the sector’s capacity for self-regulation in a media environment in which problems are regularly addressed by the government in court or through the Information Ministry.
“In Cambodia, media and journalists have been harassed by the government and court system, so this is a critical time that we need to have a press council,” Sothoeuth said.
In August, five journalists from CCIM’s independent news outlet VOD were detained for several hours, with a videographer slapped in the face by an officer when the journalist refused to hand over the phone he was using to record authorities questioning his colleagues.
Last year, the number of journalists arrested and harassed while working increased by nearly 50% compared to 2020, according to the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), the parent organization of CamboJA News, which participated in Friday’s discussion.
Nearly 100 journalists faced harassment in 49 cases, including physical attacks, threats of violence, arrest, imprisonment and legal actions last year. Thirty-seven journalists were imprisoned on charges of incitement, extortion and other crimes.
Susanna Elmberger, second secretary for human rights, democracy and rule of law at the Swedish Embassy in Phnom Penh, said a press council could contribute to strengthening media independence, press freedom and journalists’ safety.
“Media self-regulation mechanisms, like the press councils, are one of the best tools that we have to protect freedom of the press, and make sure that the media can perform their duties independently, without fear and constraints,” Elmberger said during the event.
In recent years, journalists have been at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19, providing the public with critical information on the pandemic’s progress, Elmberger said. But the spread of disinformation and hate speech online has eroded the public’s trust in the media.
“It is critical that the media community makes a unified effort to promote the highest ethical standards of the media,” she said.
Nop Vy, executive director at CamboJA, agreed that the goal of a press council was to do just that—set and improve ethical standards in journalism.
“It is a suitable time that we should create a press council, and they can build a standard ethical code of conduct that can be implemented for all journalists working in Cambodia,” Vy said.
Mikel Aguirre Idiaquez, a communications officer at Unesco, said the purpose of a press council is also to hold media accountable and promote transparency. He said the council could even take on the role of ensuring many media houses in the country are not in the same hands.
“So there is no monopoly of opinions and ideas and making sure that there is enough diversity in the media. That’s the other way to ensure that there is independence of the media,” he said.
Kin Vibol, deputy director-general at the Information Ministry’s information and broadcasting department, attended the workshop but declined to comment on the prospects of establishing a press council, saying he would report back to his supervisors on the meeting’s content.
Ministry spokesperson Meas Sophorn could not be reached for comment.
Vann Vichar, a freelance journalist who attended the event and has also reported for CamboJA, said he supported the idea of a press council, but would wait and see whether it would work in the interests of journalists.
“The current situation for journalists, we are still harassed or have our freedoms restricted, but if there is a press council, maybe it can address those issues better,” he said.
The journalist added that press freedom organizations should also strengthen existing press associations to support journalists.
“We should strengthen the current press clubs to help as many journalists as possible and promote press freedom,” he said.