Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Journalists Concerned Over The Use of Criminal Code

The Cambodian media landscape is undergoing a significant transformation, driven by the rapid rise of online platforms as traditional media slowly phases out.

Data by the Ministry of Information showed that there were more than 2,000 media outlets which obtained licenses from the ministry as of 2023. Of the amount, more than 930 are online platforms.

However, with the rise of online media, there has been an apparent compromise in professionalism and journalism ethics with the Criminal Code being used to restrict press freedom.

CamboJA’s Research and Advocacy team met at least five local journalists in Mondulkiri and Kratie province to document the issues and challenges faced by local journalists. Most said legal action against journalists has been commonly used while they were reporting on sensitive issues or issues that implicate the authorities and “powerful individuals”.

Journalists, who asked not to be named, said they face similar issues and dare not report on sensitive issues, fearing harsh reprisals.

They also said they want to see the press law being used to penalize alleged professional misconduct instead of the criminal code.

A journalist from HM TV news in Mondulkiri said he used to often experience intimidation and pressure by the authorities when he reports on sensitive issues, such as environment or issues that affect the authorities.

“We [journalists] are normally summoned by the local authorities for questioning and eventually asked to sign agreements to stop reporting on the issue,” he said, adding that he was even questioned for highlighting farmers’ problems.

As a result, he “does not dare” to report on sensitive issues now and chooses to only write about issues that have been exposed or topics which have a positive theme.

“We are not like real journalists because the local authorities want us to report positive [things] only. They tell us which issues we should report on and which ones we should not. We cannot do investigative stories,” he said.

Another journalist from BDN Online news, who has worked for 10 years in the field, said he was concerned about the use of criminal laws against journalists.

Although he has never faced legal action, the journalist who has joined journalism courses since 2017, believes that observing professionalism and journalism ethics ensures journalists experience reduced risks of legal actions.

However, he insists that journalism is not a crime.

“I have seen many cases where they [powerful authorities] use the criminal code to penalize journalists who may have committed a professional mistake when the press law should be used instead,” he said.

Impactful stories

In another case, a freelance journalist from Women’s Community Voice Radio in Kratie province was summoned for questioning by the provincial court after reporting on an issue involving indigenous people in Ou Krieng Senchey district. The people were protesting against the environment officials which led to the burning of the environmental post in Sre Chis commune on August 5, 2023.

The journalist, an indigenous person himself, was accused of inciting the people to use violence against the authority during the protest. He was previously questioned by the Ministry of Environment in Phnom Penh on August 16, 2023, and later summoned by the provincial court for questioning on March 18, 2024.

He told CamboJA that while covering the protest, he had his press card on him and was taking pictures and videos, and interviewing people and the authorities who were there. The report was broadcast and published on Women’s Community Voice Radio in Kratie.

“I believe that this is a threat because they know I work as a journalist and have reported on some issues in the community that impact officials,” he said, adding that he has reported on environmental issues and land disputes.

He has worked as a freelance journalist for more than a year now, admitting that becoming a journalist has helped the people in his community.

Before the improvement of public service and roads, his community was rather poor and authorities always ignored the people’s requests, he said. “But when I became a journalist and reported on the issues [in the area], some problems were solved. This includes the construction of new roads and the improvement of public service at the commune and district level.”

A risky job

In 2023, CamboJA recorded 32 cases of harassment, affecting at least 59 journalists (six of them women journalists). Most of the harassment cases involved intimidation by the government officers. At the time, four online journalists were imprisoned for different charges relating to their work.

According to the report, at least 34 journalists from 17 different online media outlets were subjected to “trumped up” accusations in 2023, where they were summoned to court, had their media license revoked, faced legal threats, and imprisoned.

In the four-year period (2020-2023), CamboJA documented a total of 151 harassment cases against 281 journalists and media workers (21 of them women).

The shutdown of Voice of Democracy in February 2023, one of the country’s most trusted independent media outlets, had a profound effect on Cambodia’s media sphere.

CamboJA was threatened with possible legal action and license revocation by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for publishing an article on the assault of a vocal critic of government policies.

Extortion charges

Based on CamboJA’s observation between January and March, Mondulkiri had one of the highest number of cases where journalists faced legal actions. At least 15 journalists had been charged with “extortion” and summoned for questioning.

Eight journalists, including two women, were arrested and charged in March, 2024. Five were charged in October 2023. Four of them were placed in pre-trial detention for five months in 2023.

Two journalists in Prey Veng province were also summoned by Keo Seima district authorities for their report on illegal logging.

An online journalist in Kampong Thom province was charged for extortion under Articles 363 and 364 of the Criminal Code and sentenced to two years imprisonment in 2023. He denied the accusation, saying that the conviction was baseless and unjust as he had not committed the crime.

The complaint was allegedly based on four money transfers that the plaintiff sent him as evidence of extortion. He recently filed an appeal against the sentence.

Over in Mondulkiri province, a journalist from Norkor Meas GTV Online, who was charged with four others for extortion in October 2023, denied committing the crime and asked the court to drop the charges.

A widower with two daughters was employed by Norkor Meas GTV online about two years ago. Although he had never joined any training or workshop on journalism, he often received guidance and instructions from his publisher. He sends his publisher pictures and videos with short captions for publishing.

Why was he sued and charged

On March 5, 2024, CamboJA met the journalist in his home in Koh Nhek district. He told CamboJA that on October 21, 2023 he traveled about 100 kilometers from his home in Koh Nhek district to visit a friend, a journalist for CPM news, in Dakdam district.

When he arrived at his friend’s home, he met three other online journalists who told him they were going to Koh Nhek district, where his house is. So, he asked them for a lift home in their car so he could save the taxi money. On the way to Koh Nhek, he said the journalists entered a family-run wood processing business site.

“I told them not to ask for money from anyone but they didn’t listen to me,” he said. “At the time, I was inside the car, and I did not know what they were talking about with the business owner. I didn’t know how much money they got.”

A moment later, the police arrived and asked the journalists, including him, to go to the district police station for questioning and sign an agreement to stop asking money from businesses in future.

He said the police questioned the four journalists and allowed them to go home but he refused to accept his involvement with the other journalists.

According to him, after being questioned, the journalists were released and they returned to Mondulkiri town on the same day.

On October 22, 2023, he received information that the four journalists were arrested on allegations of extorting a Chinese mining firm in Keo Seima district.

On October 23, 2023, he was sued by the owner of the wood processing business in Koh Nhek and was summoned by the provincial court for questioning. He was later charged for extortion under Articles 25, 363 and 364 of the Criminal Code but released on bail.

“I swear on my life and would even leave my two daughters as proof that I didn’t commit the crime,” he told CamboJA while sitting in his wooden house in Koh Nhek on March 5, 2024.

The journalist said he wanted to stop working but his publisher urged him to continue. His press card was renewed by Norkor Meas GTV Online on January 1, 2024, which is valid until December 31, 2024.

“Now I dare not report [on anything] because my case is still in the court,” he said. “I call for the charge against me to be dropped because I have not committed any crime.”

According to the police investigation report, he was not questioned, with the Norkor Meas GTV journalist confirming that he was not involved in the activity.

The other four journalists, who were interviewed by CamboJA said they were released on bail in March 2024. They also said the journalist from Norkor Mease GTV was not involved with the activity.

The issue of journalism ethics

Many online journalists are accused of misconduct and disregarding journalism ethics. The information minister has promised to improve the sector by addressing issues related to journalism ethics and professionalism.

On December 21, 2023, a letter was sent to the 20th Editor Forum themed “Media professionalism and ethics” where Prime Minister Hun Manet highlighted the importance of the media sector and journalists’ work. However, he said, the industry practiced poor professionalism and journalistic ethics in the country, especially online journalists. There needs to be more attention drawn to public trust, he added.

To strengthen journalism ethics, the Information Ministry made an announcement in January for online media outlets to register with them to update the country’s digital media landscape.

The ministry also introduced five indicators in preparation of the digital economy including continuing to develop the media infrastructure for traditional and modern media, and providing technical and professional training for journalism. This involves the cooperation of ministries, institutions and development partners.

It will focus on fighting fake news and building the legal basis, strengthening law enforcement, reviewing the draft law on access to information (also known as A2I), amending the press law to adapt to developments in the society, and strengthening the journalism industry.

A request for updated data on registered online media was recently made by CamboJA via Telegram to the Ministry of Information. However, its spokesperson Tep Asnarith asked CamboJA to submit an official letter requesting the information.

In April, Minister of Information Neth Pheaktra revealed that as of March 31, 2023, more than 5,000 media outlets have applied for media licenses with the ministry. There are nearly 10,000 journalists operating in Cambodia currently.

With regards to journalism ethics, Asnarith called on journalists and media outlets to continue to respect professionalism and journalism ethics.

He said journalists need to have a good relationship with ministry spokespeople, authorities, and relevant parties, and respect the law and the profession. “Journalists and media outlets need to actively promote and disseminate true information to ensure proper comprehension by the people,” he said. “The information must be balanced, professional and responsible in order to contribute to the development of the media sector.”

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