The Ministry of Information has reiterated the need for a unified code of ethics in Cambodian journalism, describing it as crucial for maintaining accuracy and social integrity.

Diverse practices among media entities necessitate common principles, explained the ministry, which prompted an April 19 workshop, chaired by information minister Neth Pheaktra.

With 325 journalists participating, along with senior members of the information ministry, the event aimed to lay the groundwork for a "Professional Journalism Charter" which will be tailored to a Cambodian context.

“This charter aims to establish national ethical standards, supporting democracy and press freedom. The ministry reaffirms its commitment to fostering a conducive environment for professional journalism,” said a ministry statement.

At the same time, the ministry condemned the dissemination of inappropriate content by journalists, citing its adverse impact on the Kingdom’s religious, cultural and social values.

Ministry spokesperson Tep Asnarith emphasised that such actions violate journalistic ethics, tarnishing the integrity of the profession.

He explained that unethical reporting not only undermines the credibility of individual journalists but also diminishes public trust in the media industry as a whole. He highlighted the importance of adhering to a code of ethics to ensure accuracy and social integrity in reporting.

Echoing the urgency of the charter initiative, Ung Bun Y, head of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Department of Media and Communications, also outlined Cambodia's urgent need for a Professional Journalism Charter.

He noted the absence of a clear, standardised framework for professional journalists in the country.

“Establishing clear operational standards for journalistic ethics through rules and minimum standards is essential,” he told The Post.

“It will serve as a crucial foundation for reinforcing ethical standards within the profession, and will enhance its overall quality and value to the Kingdom,” he added.

He wanted to reassure the public that the implementation of the Professional Journalism Charter would not infringe upon freedom of expression, as it will involve input from all stakeholders and be aligned with global journalistic principles and legal requirements.

Bun Y believed that the charter will bolster journalistic ethics, accountability, and the overall value of the profession in Cambodia, ultimately fostering a more prosperous journalism sector.

However, not all responses to the proposed charter were entirely positive. 

Chhort Bunthong, a researcher and philosopher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC), raised concerns over the emergence of the term "journalism charter" alongside existing laws and ethics in the field.

He questioned the distinction between the present law governing journalists and journalistic ethics, and the new concept.

From a philosophical standpoint, Bunthong accepted the integral role of ethics in journalism, which he believed extend beyond legal frameworks.

He stressed the importance of journalists adhering to truthfulness, distinguishing between right and wrong, and understanding their responsibilities, as well as their accountability.

“Journalists must prioritize truthfulness, discern right from wrong, understand their duties, and know what actions are appropriate or inappropriate,” said Bunthong.

“Major transgressions are addressed by journalistic law, while ethical guidelines handle matters not covered by legal statutes. Having both is adequate to cover journalistic responsibilities,” he added.

Bunthong cautioned against overly strict regulations, fearing they might hinder journalists' abilities to address social issues and bring them to the attention of the public, as well as the country’s leadership.

However, he also acknowledged the importance of journalists complying with laws and professional standards, as this is essential for preserving the credibility and value of the profession.

“For me, I think the existing laws and ethical standards are enough,” Bunthong told The Post.

“In addition, journalists must abide by international press laws, both at the regional level and through those recommended by the UN,” he continued.

By indentifying the dual potential of journalism to serve as both a reliable informant and a potential source of misinformation, Bunthong noted the need for professionalism and impartiality.

He criticised unprofessional practices, such as biased reporting and the dissemination of inaccurate information, actions which have the potential to mislead the public and undermine the credibility of the media.

“Journalism serves as a double-edged sword. It functions both as a reliable source of information, while providing insight into societal happenings,” he said.

“Unfortunately, some journalists exhibit unprofessional conduct, gathering misinformation and subsequently misleading the public. Moreover, certain journalists display bias towards specific political factions or groups, further exacerbating misunderstandings,” he cautioned.

Meas Ny, a social researcher, expressed his concerns that a failure to align the proposed charter with constitutional principles could undermine press freedom. He stressed the importance of scrutinising the Cambodian constitution to ensure the charter's compliance.

“New ‘innovations’ are sometimes biased and aimed at restricting press freedom,” he said.

“We are waiting to see what the purpose of the Professional Journalism Charter is,” he added.

However, Ny acknowledged the potential benefits of a well-developed and implemented charter in combating false reporting and misinformation.

He noted that while false information poses challenges, reporting which is critical of the government should not always be classified as fake news, and emphasised the importance of transparency.

"For me personally, when it comes to professional standards of journalism which are recognised by any institution, at any level, they must reflect the tenets of the Kingdom’s constitution. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are fundamental to the constitution,” he told The Post.

The term "code of ethics" encompasses shared principles guiding work execution, actions, or activities in accordance with professional standards to ensure accuracy, legitimacy, and social integrity, according to the information ministry’s Asnarith.

He explained that in this context, the proposed charter will set essential rules and minimum standards for the implementation of journalistic ethics in Cambodia, in alignment with all relevant laws and regulations.

The workshop participants endorsed the creation of a unified charter which will uphold standards in Cambodia, he said, adding that the ministry has issued a white paper, which invites journalists to outline their views on ethical journalism practices and protections.

According to the ministry statement, the information minister stressed that once the charter is established and promulgated, it will serve as a foundation for the Press Unit, the Press Association, and other stakeholders to develop their own code of conduct.

“In essence, the charter lays down essential rules and minimum standards to steer the practice of journalistic ethics in Cambodia in alignment with relevant laws and regulations,” it added.