There’s a polite warning about throwing stones in glass houses. There’s a more impolite instruction to know the extent of one’s own ignorance. In perusing the Phnom Penh Post’s recent piece (“PM calls for ‘ethical fourth estate’,” January 23), one is compelled to scrutinize what emanated from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet. The scene? The annual meeting of the Ministry of Truth (sorry, Ministry of Information). The Post’s lede tells us: “Prime Minister Hun Manet has called on the Kingdom’s media outlets and journalists to live up to their role as the ‘fourth estate’ while stressing the necessity for legal provisions to govern the sector.” One might overlook the pretentiousness of the “fourth estate” a term employed only in moments when the press is cast as conspiratorial or valorous. And it’s all the more ostentatious coming from a premier ensconced in a one-party dominion.
He continued: “the media empowers the people, allowing them to make informed decisions, and lets the government communicate its policies,” which, at face value, is an apt portrayal of journalistic functions. Thereafter, this means journalists must abide by ethics (fair enough) and that, as he is paraphrased, they should “seek out the kind of prestige that can be earned by behaving ethically.”
Then the Cambodian leader is directly quoted: “If journalists apply what might be called ‘free style’ and do whatever they want, then their value to the public will be lost. The people will not accept their opinions and will question whether their information can be trusted.” So far, so repetitive of the sort of lecturing lexicon of his father, thus we know that both Hun pere and Hun fils profess a deep understanding of the complex mechanics of all professions they’ve never done. (Note, no journalist says “free style.”)
Then we have the following: “He added that most journalists do their work well, but warned that some have engaged in behavior such as extortion or blackmail.” Indeed, some have been alleged victims of extortion and blackmail from Hun Manet’s own party. To give one example of a more innocuous nature; was it not a form of blackmail when Voice of Democracy was closed last year and Hun Sen offered the laid-off journalists government jobs, presumably to stop them from reporting elsewhere? That, or the more obvious form of extortion by threatening to close down any newspaper that reports critically about your government?
I do agree with Hun Manet’s next point: the media should carefully consider whether to show graphic images such as dead bodies or traffic accidents. But then his speech sags into solipsism. Offering several recommendations for the improvement of the media sector, such as the establishment of legal standards, he offered:
Whenever we discuss legal standards or provisions, there are usually comments or accusations that the government makes law only to curb freedom of expression, especially by the press…
Let me make it clear that such laws exist in every country. I lived in several other democratic countries for years. Sustainable democracy is based on law as its foundation. A democratic country without governing laws is called anarchy, or “democrazy.”
Press laws are there to protect journalists who follow the law and adhere to professional ethics. If they follow the rules but are falsely accused, the law will protect them.
Where does one start? With Dr. Manet’s undergraduate attempt at wit: “anarchy” for “democrazy”? With the risible moment when he insinuated that Cambodia is a “sustainable democracy”? With his apparent belief that Cambodia has a rule of law and that the courts protect victims? The Post article ends with a speech from Neth Pheaktra, the information minister. His words were the sort that every Cambodian bureaucrat is instructed to learn on day one orientation: to deny an accusation and then provide a long list of statistics stripped of any context but which sound impressive.
If you predict an accusation that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) runs a one-party state, preempt it by stating that 18 political parties took part in the last election. If you predict the critics will say the CPP runs a repressive regime that silences the media, do as Neth Pheaktra did and unfurl the statistic that “2,000 media outlets are currently registered with the ministry, including 933 websites and online TV channels, 447 newspapers, 52 journalist associations, 194 magazines, 21 leaflet printers, and 113 poster and billboard printing houses.” If that fails to impress, consider a follow-up promise of a new gadget. Indeed, his ministry, he said, will issue press cards with QR codes! If that doesn’t entice hacks, perhaps it might if those QR codes get them front-row seats at Hun Manet’s next sermon on media ethics on World Press Freedom Day in May.
This speech was what it was, and it will likely strike terror in the few remaining serious journalists (those not on the ruling party’s dime) that the government is drawing up a new code of conduct for the media. If one were to guess, this will require hacks to uphold the image of Cambodia – which means saying nothing critical about any facet of the country, except the “treasonous” opposition – and will include some bons mots about honor, respectability, prestige, etc.
Sections of the Cambodian press have grown tired of being spoken to in such patronizing terms, although the reigning response of journalists seems one of apathetic acceptance that the ruling party’s fingers share their keyboards.
But bring on a new code of conduct and at the same time, one hopes with zero expectation, some self-reflection from Hun Manet at his next lecture in May. Don’t accept bribes or payments? Okay, but this means a hefty chunk of Cambodia’s media runs afoul, principally because of the CPP’s open pockets. (Wasn’t Hun Manet’s brother accused of financially propping up the Khmer Times?) Don’t report information you know to be false? Is there to be a review of state-run newspapers, too? Don’t slander and defame?
Personally speaking, I never did hear back from the usually anti-slanderous ministers whom I contacted for their opinion after I was called a “man without a nation, a nomad writer without a family” and “kon ot pouch” in a Khmer Times editorial or when the organization I work with was dubbed a “command center…[that] mobilizes attacks on Cambodia” by the same newspaper.
Don’t plagiarize? Here’s looking at you, again, Khmer Times. If I may add another ethic: Don’t judge someone’s actions by their reputation – although this was the response of almost every article written by the saccharine press about Hun Manet before and after his succession last year.
For any journalist who doesn’t want to be spoken to in paternalist tones and would rather keep their own score, one might heed the advice of the British columnist Nick Cohen: the most corrupting affliction a journalist can suffer, he wrote, is “the urge to give readers what they want.” Indeed, this might be a far worse affliction in the long run than giving your paymasters what they want.