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The German-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation late last year held a conference on media and law in the Cambodian tourist center of Siem Reap. The Jakarta Post’s Imanuddin Razak participated in the three-day conference, which covered discussions on press freedom in Asia.
Most people would agree that nothing in life is free — including the obtaining or upholding of press freedom.
This basic truth was uttered by one conference participant who hailed from a Southeast Asian country.
An obvious example comes from the conference host: Cambodia itself.
The president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ), Pen Samitthy, said due to a weak judicial system and law enforcement in Cambodia, the establishment of a press council to assist journalists in avoiding legal lawsuits was a necessity.
Looking at the number of media outlets in Cambodia – 296 local newspapers, 90 magazines, 30 bulletins, 41 registered foreign media institutions, 22 radio stations and seven television stations, most of whom are privately owned – there is widespread recognition the Cambodian media enjoy press freedom.
The image that press freedom in Cambodia is strongly upheld was strengthened by a government decision in 2006 to decriminalize defamation cases to ensure journalists would not be sent to prison for defamation.
This encouraged Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) to issue a statement deeming Cambodia the model for other Asian countries to follow in upholding press freedom; an important component of democracy. The group also ranked Cambodia 85 out of 169 countries with press freedom surveyed in 2007.
Cambodia rated far better than the other nine ASEAN member countries, including Indonesia (100), Malaysia (124), the Philippines (128), Thailand (135), Singapore (142), Laos (161), Vietnam (162) and Myanmar (164).
“However, I have to say that Cambodia is not a perfect place for journalists. There were six journalists killed between 1993 and 1997. Since 1997, there have been no journalists murdered; but arrests, threats and lawsuits are still concerns for Cambodian journalists,” said Samitthy.
The press freedom trend has since experienced a change from the use of violence to the use of the legal system. In 2006, there were seven lawsuits filed against Cambodian journalists, an arrest of a journalist and 12 cases of threats against journalists.
Fortunately, there were cases that could be solved out of court through negotiations, in which the CCJ served as the mediator.
However, Cambodian courts prefer to apply the penal code rather than the Law on Press. As a result, journalists can be imprisoned if they are found guilty.
Another concern is there are some articles in the Law on Press that can be applied to imprison journalists. An example is article 12 of the law regarding national security and political stability, which gives the courts permission to prosecute journalists whose reports harm national security and political stability.
Cambodian journalists can also be imprisoned if they have been sued by a member of the public and proven guilty of defamation.
Cambodian journalists not only face legal lawsuits, but also have limited access to information. Article 5 of the press law stipulates that journalists have to wait one month to obtain requested information from government officials.
The CCJ, Samitthy said, was considering establishing its own regulations to help journalists avoid lawsuits.
“An important step is to set up a national code of conduct for Cambodian journalists and a mechanism to enforce the code of conduct through the establishment of a self-regulatory body, known as a press council, which will monitor and deal with the issues between journalists and members of the public,” he said.
This is the lesson from Cambodia. But what about press freedom in India, an Asian country dubbed as the world’s largest democracy?
“The Indian Constitution, which came into force in 1950, stipulates that all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression,” Mukund Padmanabhan, Senior Associate Editor of The Hindu, said at the conference.
“Yet, the constitution does not have a specific provision for the freedom of the press. Press freedom is a defined right in India as it has its roots in the right to freedom of speech and expression of the citizen.”
Mukund specifically highlighted three laws – the Contempt Law, Defamation Law and Privilege Law – that had the potential to hamper press freedom in India, as they could be used to prosecute or even imprison journalists for their reports.
Meanwhile, press freedom in Malaysia and Singapore, which both impose an internal security act, remains a difficult issue to resolve.
The Reporters Without Borders group quoted Singaporean leaders as saying economic prosperity had to be paid for with freedom.
“I’m often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yet, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today,” it quoted a statement by former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Lee’s remark, according to Reporters Without Borders, sums up the policy of the country’s longtime ruler – that civil liberties are never a priority and that a good citizen should always remember national interests are more important.
This has remained the government’s attitude since Lee partly handed over power to his successors in 1990, after ruling for 31 years.
Similarly, press freedom in Malaysia has been criticized as the press there has been heavily influenced by the government, in the name of prosperity and stability.
In the Philippines, however, as both judicial and press regulations have developed toward freedom of the press, problems that still hamper press freedom focus more around security and safety for media employees and organizations.
A report compiled by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) revealed that five Philippine journalists were killed last year, increasing the total number of journalists killed under the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration to 54.
Indonesia’s reform movement in 1998 led to the revocation of the Information Minister’s decree on media publishing licenses; the most effective tool of the New Order government in controlling the media.
Yet, reforms have also led people to exercise their rights independently, including the filing of both criminal and civil lawsuits by parties or individuals dissatisfied with media reports.