Six Southeast Asian journalist organizations from five countries formed a regional partnership to combat increasing repression and deteriorating press freedom at a conference in Phnom Penh on Monday.
The organizations which signed the memorandum of understanding include the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), Indonesia’s Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI), the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Malaysia’s Gerakan Media Merdeka, the Journalism Association of Timor Leste and the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in Malaysia.
“Strengthened collaboration and shared experiences are critical for the region at a time when the media face numerous challenges from the State and non State actors,” said CIJ’s executive director Wathshlah G. Naidu.
The regional press network, coordinated by AJI, will co-fundraise, monitor harassment cases against journalists, conduct joint-campaigns in response to attacks on press freedom and provide training and support across newsrooms, according to the memorandum of understanding.
“In each ASEAN country there are more and more restrictions on press freedom and intimidation, including harassment,” said Nop Vy, CamboJA’s executive director. “We are working to promote press freedom for independent journalists and provide effective, sustainable support.”
Besides Timor Leste, Southeast Asian countries are among the most restrictive of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders rankings.
Out of 180 listed countries, Malaysia is ranked 113th, Thailand is 115th, Indonesia 117th, Cambodia 142nd, Philippines’ 147th and Myanmar is 176th. Timor Leste is ranked 17th.
Information Ministry spokesperson Meas Sophorn said Cambodian press freedoms and rights are guaranteed under the Press Law of Cambodia. The approximately 2,000 registered media outlets reflect a diverse media ecosystem, he added.
But, in 2021, CamboJA recorded 51 cases of harassment against journalists, including 32 arrests.
Cambodian journalist Try Sophal, who is facing pending charges of incitement to commit a felony for reporting on a land dispute, participated in the conference and urged for improved press freedoms.
“Our free press is still limited because at local levels there are restrictions and discrimination, especially for journalists who dare to report [illegal] offenses that affected their [authorities’] interests,” Sophal said.
Sok Oudom, a former radio station owner from Kampong Chhnang province arrested in 2020 and sentenced to 20 months in prison for reporting on a land conflict linked to Cambodia’s military, attended the conference and said he supported the mission of the regional partnership.
“In my opinion, press freedom is still limited for independent journalists,” Oudom said. “When we have exercised freedom of expression to criticize some people and affect their interests, they are always making accusations against us.”