The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Cambodian Advocacy Officer Kaing Tong Ngy
Cambodia, despite growing numbers of Internet users and citizen journalists, is a dangerous place for journalists to write. The country faces strong government control over the media, and independent media groups and journalists are constantly threatened, or in some cases, attacked for their work. The government is trying to push a new Cybercrime Law into effect, which would greatly impact freedom of speech in the country.
Sampsonia Way recently talked with Kaing Tong Ngy, current Communication and Advocacy Officer for the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. In this interview he discusses the most dangerous topics for Cambodian journalists to cover,
the growing prevalence of Facebook for Cambodian citizens, and how the free speech climate can be improved.
What are the biggest obstacles to free speech in Cambodia?
Censorship is a huge issue in Cambodia and news organizations. The Cambodian government maintains strict control over news organizations, heavily editing or denying the work of journalists.
Cambodian journalists often contend with physical threats and legal issues, like being sued by government officials for writing contentious articles. When reporting on sensitive topics, it is often the case that a journalist will face surveillance or will receive an unknown call or text threatening them with violence or even death for covering a topic.
Impunity is rampant and several cases in which journalists have faced violence at the hands of the military or special interest groups have never been addressed in the legal system. Because the threat of physical harm at the hands of the military is so great, some journalists choose to self-censor.
More often than not, Cambodian journalists lack formal education. Without professional training, journalists generally don’t have a grasp on a journalistic code of conduct.
How do Cambodians receive their news?
Television is the most popular form of media but most Cambodians watch it for entertainment. Because it is well known that television news broadcasts are not trustworthy, they are not a source for Cambodians to stay up on current events. Newspapers may be regulated to a lesser degree, however Cambodians don’t read much due to poor education and widespread illiteracy.
On the other hand, foreign radio is a major news source in Cambodia. A few sources that are very popular include Radio Friend International, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and ABC Radio Australia.
There are very few radio stations operating from within the country that are not under firm government control. One major independent radio station is Voice of Democracy, which is operated by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. However, it has faced government shut downs.
In 2012, Mam Sonando, one of the most prominent critics of the Cambodian government, was sentenced to twenty years in prison for supposedly instigating a rural secessionist movement. His radio station Beehive is known for allowing members of any political party to express their views on air. This new charge is just the latest attempt to intimidate Mam Sonando into discontinuing his broadcasts of alternative political views.
What would you say are the three most dangerous topics for Cambodian journalists to cover?
Of course, explicitly stating anything that opposes the government could cause great danger for a journalist.
Illegal logging is a dangerous topic at the moment. A few years ago, a very prominent environmental activist, Chut Wutty, was murdered for speaking out against illegal logging. Threats come from the powerful owners of the logging companies backed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, and despite promises for reform, logging remains a serious environmental threat in Cambodia
Land grabbing is a contentious topic as well. We have hundreds of thousands of cases in which industrial agriculture firms evict farmers and demolish their homes without granting proper compensation.
I understand that sex trafficking is rampant in Cambodia. Are there any risks for journalists covering this topic?
I can’t confirm that sex trafficking is “rampant” because we lack reliable sources on the issue. While we do witness a great deal of sex work, there’s not sufficient data on Cambodian sex trafficking such as the ratio of forced to voluntary sex work.
However, sex trafficking used to be one of the most dangerous topics for journalists to cover in Cambodia.
Recent attention from NGOs has softened the threat placed on journalists for covering sex trafficking. However, the powerful interests groups behind sex trafficking still receive impunity for threatening journalists because the massive sex trafficking industry would never be possible if not for ties to government officials and security forces.
Internet use is on the rise in Cambodia, jumping from 1.3% in 2010 to 18% in 2013 according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. How important would you say social media and citizen journalism is in Cambodia?
Internet is the most free form of media in Cambodia and social media plays an important role in providing information to Cambodians, especially the younger generation.
Considering the virtual absence of Internet access just a few years ago, the situation is quite good today. Mobile phone companies have played an important role by spreading Internet access to even some rural areas. Though many Cambodians are illiterate, lack formal education, and cannot afford mobile phone Internet access, Internet use is increasing.
Cambodians heavily rely on Facebook for news. The Cambodian Center for Independent Media hosts a website called VOD Hot News and a supporting Facebook page with about 200,000 fans. Most VOD Hot News readers learn of the site through Facebook.
The 2013 elections, when The Cambodian Peoples Party lost twenty-two seats to the opposition, marked a turning point for Cambodians realizing the impact of social media. Thanks to social media, people shared information on the elections that they’d never been able to before. The opposition party led by Sam Rainsy, as well as social activists, worked very hard to use social media as a tool for spreading information during the elections.
My sister who is in her thirties had never used the Internet until last year, when she saw others receiving information on the elections via Facebook. People would pass around their smartphones so that everyone could see the election footage. She was excited to view news that she had never been exposed to before and asked her fourteen-year-old daughter to create her a Facebook account.
Also, citizen journalism is booming today. We have a lot of young people going to the field to report, shooting photos, and videos. At times, the quality of their news is questionable mainly because they lack professional training.
Several NGOs, having witnessed the spread of citizen journalism, adopted training programs to provide the skills these journalists need.
Among these organizations is the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. We host community projects that train activists to become citizen journalists. Training includes Internet and smartphone tutorials, photography and social media tutorials, and fundamentals for basic reporting. We help journalists to turn the information they’ve collected into reliable pieces for public viewing.
CCIM even hosts a project to train government workers writing on health, safety, and security issues.
What barriers do organizations like CCIM face?
Recently, there was a leak of the government draft for the Cybercrime Law, which concerns many civil society NGOs because some of the articles in this draft law could be detrimental to free expression for Cambodians. The justification for implementing this law is that it will be protecting Cambodians when in actuality it will tighten control of the spread of information via Internet.
Last month, CCIM received news of another law being drafted that will control the mobile phone companies. Government attempts to control the infrastructure of the mobile phone companies, our main source for Internet access, threaten free expression.
Would the Access to Information Law help protect access to mobile phone services? How would the Access to Information Law help Cambodian Media if it were to pass?
In early 2013, the Ministry of Information claimed a commitment to passing the law in three years. By the end of 2015 the Access to Information Law should be in affect. Unfortunately, it’s already been a year since this statement was made and we have not yet seen a draft of the Access to Information Law.
CCIM is running an online campaign to urge the government to first draft this law.
Of course, we want to see a law passed that will protect freedom of information but one of the greatest difficulties for journalists is approaching government officials. There is virtually no transparency in any facet of the government and we cannot ask for data.
There are policies in place that are meant to encourage government officials to speak with journalists but since these are not enforced at all, public information suffers.
The Access to Information Law will theoretically put more pressure on the government to disclose public information, contribute to transparency and good governance. Without the draft law, a conclusion on the merits of the law can’t be made.
On behalf of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, what do you think needs to change in Cambodia for the free speech climate to improve?
The government needs to understand the benefit of free speech for Cambodia. Controlling speech cripples society and the government as well. They should work with, not against, the Cambodian people, and listen to the people’s concerns.
Recently, the government shut down Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. Freedom Park is a place for citizen demonstrations. Unfortunately, after the crackdown on the Government Workers Protests in early January, the government placed the armed forces in control of Freedom Park.
Also, the Cambodian media should take the initiative to fight government control and reform itself. Despite threats that will inevitably come, news organizations must strive for independence and professionalism.
The burden to reform cannot lie solely on journalists but on the news organizations that employ them. The more organizations that band together against threats to free press, the less control the government will hold. Because the news organizations are government owned, internal dissent is discouraged. As of late, there is virtually no attempt to challenge government control, but I believe that there is always a way out.
In my own experience, when I’ve realized that the organization I’m working for is not truly independent, when there is uncertainty over where the budget is coming from, I move on to find somewhere else that I can uphold my professionalism and maintain independence over what I publish.