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When access is denied: Government opacity forces journalists to balance ethics with public’s right to know

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Prominent Radio Free Asia journalist Chun Chanboth (right) speaks at a workshop on access to information yesterday in Phnom Penh. Niem Chheng

When access is denied: Government opacity forces journalists to balance ethics with public’s right to know

At a conference on access to information yesterday, beleaguered RFA journalist Chun Chanboth acknowledged to attendees the challenges facing journalists reporting in Cambodia but noted that he couldn’t elaborate on them himself.

But that wouldn’t be for lack of experience.

As analysts, experts and journalists point out, Chanboth who has been accused by authorities of breaking the law by misrepresenting himself to gain an interview with a political prisoner – is a case study in a unique aspect of Cambodia’s media environment.

With a seldom-relaxed government stranglehold on proper channels to access and information, reporters are often left with little choice but to blur ethical lines if they hope to serve the public interest.

Chanboth is currently facing a court summons for allegedly concealing his identity and trying to sneak into Prey Sar prison last week as part of an opposition delegation. The US-based Radio Free Asia journalist said he was attempting to meet jailed political commentator Kim Sok, whom rights groups have classified a political prisoner.

While discussing the need for an access to information law yesterday, Chanboth declined to speak about his case, but pointed to the Law on Press, which allows journalists access to information held by the government, with certain restrictions, adding that this needed to be expanded to the wider public.

But that access, in Cambodia, does not appear forthcoming. A draft access to information law has been in the works for some 10 years.

Journalists and free press advocates, including those interviewed this week, tend to hold their ethics sacrosanct, though some rules – for instance, that one should always identify oneself as a journalist – allow for exceptions if they will, as the Society of Professional Journalists puts it, “yield information vital to the public”.

And with the government placing restrictions on access to prisons, courts and other state institutions, journalists have no other option but to skirt around traditional ethics when the story demands it, said Moeun Chhean Naridh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies.

“Not only does it serve the public interest [in those cases], but it can even help the government stay away from blame and change the wrongs,” he said.

Even though Cambodian press officers, he said, have been trained in the rights of a journalist, many remain very reluctant to part even with information that should be public.

“So Cambodian journalists are at times doing their work at the mercy of Cambodian officials,” he said.

Two seasoned Cambodian journalists, who requested anonymity, agreed that journalists here had to evaluate the situation and, if needed, adapt to it, even if that meant having to bend ethical rules.

However, they added, such situations are a personal call that needs to be taken by a journalist, while weighing in the legal ramifications of doing so against the benefit to the audience.

“If journalists think that the stories are of great value or significant interest to the public, and the stories have to be reported for the sake of public interest no matter what, journalists have to be ready for legal support and protection,” said one reporter.

“In case of controversy, reporters also deserve a fair hearing, which is impossible in Cambodia’s court,” the same reporter added.

This journalistic grey area was ultimately a creation of the Cambodian government’s lack of transparency and abuse of the legal framework, which meant journalists occasionally had to conceal their identity or even break the law if necessary, said Benjamin Ismaïl at Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific Desk.

He added that Chanboth’s alleged infraction was at best an administrative offence, and did not warrant criminal proceedings. Facing the charge of “false declaration”, Chanboth could be sentenced to up to two years in prison.

“Imprisonment for a journalist who is only trying to work for the general interest is without any hesitation a disproportionate punishment,” Ismaïl said.

However, the RFA reporter also has his detractors, who said the reporter overstepped his ethical responsibilities by disguising himself to enter the prison.

“For me, any media that gets into law enforcement institutions, we should implement our law to as much as we can,” said Huy Vannak, the founder of the Federation of Cambodia Journalists – and an Interior Ministry official.

His sentiment was echoed by Pen Bona, head of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, which has toed a more pro-government line in the past. Bona said that misrepresenting oneself, even in the case of investigative work, was strictly forbidden, adding that journalists should be held liable for taking such risks and going undercover to enter restricted areas.

They did also concede that Chanboth deserved a fair hearing and should receive only a light punishment if it was an unintentional mistake.

But while there will always be restrictive and arbitrary state-enforced rules handicapping reporters, journalists do not need to adhere to them, even in freer media environments, said Ed Legaspi, executive director at Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

“The commitment to pursue a story, especially those in the public interest, will not limit the intrepid journalist from reporting,” he said.

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