In a rejection of a provincial leader’s push for hardline monitoring of journalists, the head of the Ministry of Information this week denounced the arbitrary detention of two reporters and urged authorities to more closely cooperate with media workers.
Speaking on Tuesday at a seminar on press guidelines, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith referenced the case of two journalists recently arrested while covering land protests in Kampot province and said independent, nonpartisan media has played an important role in promoting democracy in Cambodia.
“If [journalists] take pictures in front of the provincial hall, why not let them take pictures?” Kanharith said. “Arresting them is wrong, it is arbitrary! So our administration is also abusive, we do not understand! Or, as a provincial governor has said, wherever journalists go, they have to report to the authorities — it is not like this.”
The minister delivered his comments in the opening remarks of the Tuesday seminar, which was dedicated to press freedom and professional practice within the country’s legal framework. The gathering included officials from the ministries of Interior and Justice, as well as representatives of provincial authorities and journalists associations.
Kanharith didn’t name any specific people in his address, but his comments seem to refer to recent events in Kampot. There, two journalists with the Los Seng News outlet were detained November 7 on charges of incitement and malicious denunciation while covering a demonstration of villagers demanding the release of four of their peers — one of whom was just a 4-year-old child — who had been arrested the day before at a land protest.
Though the pair was released within days of their arrest, Kampot governor Mao Thonin last week ordered the director of his provincial information department to more tightly control the work of journalists.
“All news institutions that come to work in the province must go through the department’s review,” Thonin said in a meeting with officials. “They cannot just come to report exaggerations. Every night I listen, I almost get a headache — they cannot do this. Authorities work very hard and sometimes [people] believe [these journalists’] useless words that impact the honor and hard work of our leaders.”
The governor, who was appointed in October, said journalists must cooperate with local authorities while covering news in Kampot province and ordered the information department to oversee the proposed subjects of reporters’ coverage. He also said the provincial government could take action against journalists who do not gain this official permission to work.
Ork Samnang, provincial information director, told VOD he was complying with the governor’s orders but would ask the Information Ministry for guidance. Samnang said he was issuing notice to journalists in Kampot province to cooperate with his department to gain official recognition for their work in the form of a signed letter, which could then be shown to local authorities.
However, Information Minister Kanharith said at the Tuesday seminar that that kind of monitoring is not required for journalists.
“Article 40 [of the Constitution] talks about freedom to travel, so they go anywhere and it is their right, no need to inform us,” Kanharith said of journalists. “But if they want to write about the authorities somewhere, then they can contact the authorities to ask for an interview. That is a separate and related work.”
However, even as he said the ministry encourages measures to prevent the harassment of journalists, the information minister said 80 percent of journalists in Cambodia have not learned the profession and do not understand the Press Law or Criminal Code.
Pen Bona, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said there was a lack of understanding between officials and journalists, especially those working online.
According to Bona, some outlets have behaved inappropriately in the past, while officials have withheld cooperation with the press and accused journalists of incitement. However, Bona was heartened by Kanharith’s comments and said he believed the minister’s guidance would improve the situation.