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Asia Centre expert sets out media roadmap
Cambodianess’s Phoung Vantha spoke to Dr. James Gomez, Regional Director of Asia Centre about its latest report, Media Freedoms in Southeast Asia: Repeal Restrictive Laws, Strengthen Quality Journalism. Asia Centre is a research institute in Special Consultative Status with United Nations’ Economic and Social Council since 2021.
Phoung Vantha: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to journalism in Southeast Asia and how are these regional issues reflected in Cambodia?
James Gomez: One of the biggest challenges for journalists is the use of “fake news” laws against them and media organisations whenever news reports are critical of government policies. This has become a serious issue in the last two years because journalists have been casting a spotlight on the mismanagement of COVID-19 policies. In response, political leaders and government officials have resorted to “fake news” provisions in penal codes, computer crime acts, disinformation legislation and emergency laws to persecute journalists and media organisations whom they say have broken these laws. This continues to be a trend in Southeast Asia and the report identifies similar incidents in Cambodia.
Phoung Vantha: Cambodia used to have a fairly vibrant and free independent press – especially when compared to neighbours like Vietnam. What do you see as the drivers of restrictions on press freedoms in Cambodia?
James Gomez: Compared to Southeast Asia, the situation in Cambodia is direr because many independent media have been closed down since 2018. Cambodia’s media landscape which was diverse just a few years ago is no longer so. I expect that Cambodia’s freedom, internet and press rankings in the global indexes will continue to drop. The lack of independent media will especially have an impact on the commune and general elections this year and next year. Simply put, Cambodians will have fewer independent sources to cross-check information.
Phoung Vantha: Building on that last question then, can the restrictions be reversed? And is there a way to convince those in power of the benefits of a free press?
James Gomez: There are four groups of people who can help re-ignite media freedoms in Cambodia.
First, journalists, media organisations and civil society groups working on press freedoms can advocate for space and protection for independent media. Second, the UN agencies working on freedom of expression issues and the various UN human rights mechanisms can dialogue with government officials to facilitate independent media.
Third, would be the business sector. We need investment for more independent media companies to replace some of the ones that have disappeared. What Cambodia needs is “brave investments” to allow journalists and media organisations to work independently.
Four, the Government and political parties. As Cambodia will have the commune and general election this year and next year, the political parties that are running for government must have a policy or platform to promote independent media so the voters can decide who they want to support. I know Cambodia’s political party landscape has suffered some difficulties nevertheless parties contesting in these elections should have policies for independent media.
Phoung Vantha: What do journalists and media outlets in Southeast Asia need, in order to grow in the restrictive environments, they work in? Is it a matter of funding, training, legal representation, or is it something else?
James Gomez: Two very important points you have raised are training and funding.
You cannot depend on journalism courses at universities to solely provide training, as increasingly they are shifting to designing courses based on “market demand” which focus more on public relations and digital production. Apart from training by media NGOs which have to be strengthened, what I recommend are apprenticeships and on-the-job training at independent newsrooms. Media organisations such as Cambodianess have an opportunity to provide on-the-job training so aspiring journalists can work in the newsroom and the editors.
The second point is the financial sustainability of independent media. Many in the region, and more so in Cambodia, are donor reliant and are constantly chasing the “grant dollar”. While this is helpful in the start-up phase, as the venture matures, it’s very important that sustainability solutions are explored. These can include subscriptions, advertisements such as Google or YouTube revenue models or draw revenue from media consultancy services. Another revenue stream is to develop a digital-visual arm to produce digital content for clients.
Phoung Vantha: In which areas can Asia Centre be able to help in terms of developing healthy local media outlets across Southeast Asia? Is it in terms of access to information, grant financing, recognition or collaboration?
James Gomez: Asia Centre positions itself as a regional connector. For example, what we can bring to Cambodia is our knowledge from our networks. We can provide regional background and context, thoughtful insights, a comparative vantage point, and regional experiences to enrich Cambodian stories. The Centre can facilitate and amplify national independent media voices in the region. I feel the Cambodian independent voices in the media have been lost, especially in the last few years after some media closures. With COVID-19 restrictions being lifted across the region, a momentum can be built to help Cambodia’s voices take root again in the region.
Phoung Vantha: We’ve seen a lot of repressive legislation in Cambodia and throughout the region that either aims to or indirectly silences journalists, so what sort of precautions should Southeast Asian journalists take to avoid falling foul to these laws?
James Gomez: It’s a very difficult situation journalists are in, and unfortunately, many media houses are practising self-censorship. Such behaviour is not limited to the media, universities, media departments at universities, international organisations, donors and politically compromised individuals similarly avoid being critical in their analysis or avoid partnership with independent entities. They explain their behaviour as not wanting to be perceived as being on the other side and the desire to maintain access to political leaders and government officials. Given this widespread self-censorship, the safety and protection for journalists is even more important. This is an area that needs further development and strengthening.
Phoung Vantha: This report by the Centre on media freedoms in Southeast Asia suggested that governments should be strengthening media organisations. From what we’ve seen in Cambodia, the independence of these organisations is being subverted by ethical committees and pro-government outlets. The ethics committee label independent reporting as unprofessional and unethical, while pro-government outlets further condemn and deny the reports. So how do you convince a government to strengthen independent media that will produce news and opinions critical to it?
James Gomez: We encourage a polite, civil and constructive dialogue with government interlocutors as these officials in the region can be very suspicious and sensitive. In particular, the Asia Centre recommends that a positive attitude is adopted by reporters towards Cambodian government officials.
For governments, we recommend, instead of attacking independent media, we encourage they invest in them. If government officials are concerned about fake news and the professionalism of independent journalists and media organisations, they should provide them with no-string-attached technical support and training so that they can build up their skills. By having independent media, it also makes governments look good.
Part of the reason why ‘fake news’ is a problem is because governments withhold information. So, if a government says that journalists are spreading ‘fake news’ or their information is incomplete – which is quite a common technique – then the governments have the responsibility to release verified information and establish laws for all to have the right to information.
Positive laws such as the right to information, protection of whistleblowers, data and privacy protection for citizens as well as for journalists and media organisations are important. We prefer to encourage a collaborative, as opposed to a combative dialogue with governments.
Phoung Vantha: Many local outlets across the region lack the capacity, skills or resources to cover important issues in-depth, especially international issues. How do we connect regional outlets and foster greater collaboration to share resources and produce better reporting?
James Gomez: Media organisations need to cooperate with other newsrooms across the region. For example, they can cooperate with independent news from Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, and Malaysia as a start. Because of COVID-19, we lost about two and a half years. It’s time to rebuild those connections.
There also are regional fellowships and grants for undertaking investigative journalism for journalists and media houses in the region. We will also be recommending and sending media organisations some information as well so they can share them with their journalists.
If Cambodia takes some of these steps from our regional study, I am confident media freedoms in the Kingdom can be re-ignited.