Unveiled on 2 August, the committee will “examine complaints by the public against journalists and media outlets,” “evaluate the practice of journalism in Cambodia” and “provide orientation to journalists on how to conduct themselves,” according to pro-government media outlets.
In practice, the committee reserves the right to summon and sanction any journalist or media whose reporting displeases the government.
RSF has learned that the committee will have 15 members, of whom 11 will be information and interior ministry officials. The only concession to civil society is the decision to give four of the positions on the committee to representatives of journalists’ associations. One of them is Nop Vy, the head of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA).
Censorship and intimidation
Nop Vy told RSF that the committee’s current composition clearly poses a problem. “The government and journalists’ associations must have equal representation on the committee if it plans to issue any regulation limiting journalistic freedom,” he said. “Otherwise, it is unacceptable.”
“It is perfectly healthy in a democracy for the media to be held accountable for the content they produce,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “But let's not be fooled! This ethics committee will act without any independence from the government, without any transparency as to the decisions it issues, and without any recourse for the journalists it sanctions. In other words, this is clearly a new tool of censorship and intimidation that Prime Minister Hun Sen's government is deploying in order to silence any media outlets that dare to question its policies.”
Several Cambodian journalists told RSF they were concerned about the impact this ethics committee could have. “I wonder how they will judge journalists’ performance,” Voice of Democracy journalist Min Pov said. “Because there are media outlets that question the government’s performance that are already on a blacklist.”
Sineat Yon, a freelancer who reports for Voice of Democracy, Al Jazeera, The Telegraph and South China Morning Post, said: “I think this committee’s job should be done by an independent body. What the government should do is to ensure that journalists can exercise their rights freely under the press law and not use the criminal code against them.”
Last February, RSF condemned the government’s plan to provide the Cambodian Internet with a Chinese-style “Great Firewall” while, in 2018, it published a report describing how the country’s independent media had been left “in ruins” as a result of the all-out war on press freedom that Prime Minister Hun Sen had launched the year before.
Cambodia is ranked 144th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.