Forum calls for raising support to Journalists and Press Freedom in Cambodia

To commemorate the World Press Freedom Day 2021, UNESCO organized an Online Forum to discuss the current needs of journalists and the role of government to promote information as a public good during the current COVID-19 health crisis, learning from global experiences and local voices. The Forum unanimously acknowledged the struggle and efforts of journalists in reporting during the pandemic as frontline responders, and advocated for further support to independent media. The forum included journalists and media stakeholders, the Ministry of Information, the diplomatic community, development partners, UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, Human Rights Lawyers, and civil society.

UNESCO opened the Forum by presenting four recommendations to foster information as a public good in the COVID-19 context in Cambodia: to include all stakeholders in the development of media-related legislation and ensure the alignment of new laws with human-right standards; protect and promote the safety and security of media professionals, especially women, in line with the UN Plan of Action of Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity; promote media literacy among the public to address disinformation; and ensure financial sustainability of the media through incentives and the inclusion of journalists in the social-protection response to the effects of the pandemic.

Noting the importance of access to information during the recent outbreak, UNESCO Representative to Cambodia, Sardar Umar Alam emphasized that for life-saving purposes, journalists should be given unrestricted access to report on the COVID-19 situation without fear and intimidation. He added that the Right to Life, and Right to Information, as fundamental human rights, go hand-in-hand.

The Ambassador of Sweden, Björn Häggmark, highlighted that “measures to prevent the spread of infection are indispensable, but they should be supported by information and possibility for questions, debate, and accountability. Access to information is also indispensable in this regard, for raising relevant questions, take a position and, if necessary, hold different actors to account. These two objectives do not oppose, but support each other”.

Representing the Ministry of Information, the spokesperson H.E. Meas Sophorn said that “although the spread of Covid-19 is becoming a crisis around the world, including Cambodia, we can observe that the practice of journalism and press freedom in Cambodia goes on as usual”.

Over 3,000 participants following the event through Zoom and Facebook Live, had the opportunity to learn first-hand about the difficulties faced by reporters, including reporting on the pandemic, through the voices of the journalists Prak Chan Thul and Kann Vicheika.

Prak Chan Thul urged the Government to ease the media restrictions to report on Covid-19. The experienced journalists raised the concerned shared by many reporters about the use of the criminal law against the media. Prak Chan Thul said that “in line with the Press Law, the authorities should request a correction for any [news] articles which they think is inaccurate rather than arresting and sending them to prison”.

“The government must show its willingness to ensure that journalists from different tendencies have equal access to information and that women journalists are safe to report everywhere without fear of  harassment” said the freelance reporter Kann Vicheika.

The Human Rights lawyer, Sek Sophorn, said that the Press Law does not provide enough protection for reporters, and that “there should be in place a mechanism to safeguard the press professional practice, including registration, code of ethics, etc. which should be completely independent from the Executive power”.

Contributing to the discussion on the legislative framework, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, Vitit Muntarbhorn, explained that “freedom of expression together with access to information is a universal human right guaranteed by international standards. If there is to be a people-oriented law on access to information, namely that which should be public information and in the public domain, this is welcome. Where there are to be limits on such access, they too need to be tested from the angle of legality, necessity, proportionality and legitimacy. There should also be independent oversight to monitor and provide remedies.”

The Ambassadors of the EU, the US, and Australia presented experiences from their regions. The EU Ambassador Carmen Moreno, explained that one of the greatest challenges faced by the EU members during the pandemic has been misinformation and disinformation, which has often put the lives of people at risk, and in the long term can erode the trust in the institutions. Ambassador Moreno stressed that “the recipe to counter misinformation is not applying more censorship, or limiting access to information, but providing more information”.

With less than 100 active COVID-19 cases as of today, Australia is one of the success stories in the fight against the virus. For the Australian Ambassador Pablo Kang, “support to independent and free media has been critical in this success, as media facilitated dialogue and debate between different points of view”.  The Government’s approach, Ambassador Kang continued, was to provide as much information as they could for the journalists to report on.

The important role of journalists in society was stressed by the US Ambassador, W. Patrick Murphy, who said that “Courageous journalists uncover the truth, check abuse, and demand transparency. As a result, they keep societies informed and keep us safer.”

In a call for further collaboration, and concrete joint actions, the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Cambodia, Pauline Tamesis, noted in her closing remarks that “In this World Press Freedom High-Level Forum, we heard the importance of building trust through better access to information; debating issues in the public domain without fear of punishment; and the need for protecting spaces for free expression. Most importantly, we heard the need to ease restrictions on journalists, particularly in the COVID-19 context in Cambodia, including applying the Press Law instead of Criminal law.”

The event is the first one in a series of dialogues that UNESCO in collaboration with OHCHR and Sweden will be conducted in the coming months to define strategies and implement concrete actions to strengthen Freedom of Expression and Media Development in Cambodia.

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