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By: Norbert Klein Posted: January-04-2011 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 697

Looking ahead into the new year, many good wishes have been exchanged during the last couple of days, for happiness, better health, joy, long life, love, good luck, prosperity, and success. Dealing with public information, I would like to add some more wishes: for more openness, for more detail and attention to detail, which will surely add clarity and help to avoid misunderstandings. Or situations, where opinion is formed on the basis of a lack of information, which easily can lead to distrust or confrontation.

There are two regularly recurring issues, for illustration:

The first one should not be difficult to solve, if only there were a clear interest to avoid ambiguity. There are time and again reports in the press that this or that country has made so many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars available to Cambodia – but there is not always information added, whether this money is a grant, or a loan to be paid back. One adds to the debt burden of the country, the other does not. And if the question about the nature of the resources would be clearer, it might also be easier to understand why some donors are interested to know it the funds, which originate from the citizens of their countries, contribute to good governance and help to strengthen the rule of law and the protection of human rights, while other funds are given without such conditions – except one: that the money has to be paid back.

The second issue relates to the accessibility of information from government agencies. We have not counted the cases, but they are frequent, when a journalist tries to get reliable information, but is then referred from one office to another one, and again to another one, and finally is directed again where the whole carousel had started. Or the report is shorter: “The official cut the telephone as soon as he knew it was a journalist calling.” The Ministry of Information and others have been training spokespersons. But they can only operate in a useful way, if their home bases are prepared to give account to the public, the citizens.

The absence of details can also be the cause for misunderstanding and disappointment. It was reported that the Prime Minister this week lashed out at environmental activists at the groundbreaking ceremony of a 338-megawatt hydro-power dam in Koh Kong province: “Is there any development that happens without an impact on the environment and natural resources? Please give us a proper answer.” – “Only the wind that we breathe comes without a fee, but in other countries, they have to pay,” he said. “Even with farts, there is a tax, and though they do not say the tax comes from farts, it is implied when they talk about the value of biodiversity.”

Nobody claims that human society can develop without environmental impact. But this impact has to be evaluated in detail, economic gains and environmental damages have to be weighed carefully in detail. An environmental impact analysis was made for this project, it was reported – but there are well known reasons to avoid conflicts of interest. That is why such studies, in many countries, have to be made by independent organizations – but in this Cambodian case, the environmental impact study which did not raise may critical questions, had been commissioned by the company planning to build the dam.

The Mekong River Commission, in view of Mekong dams, had said, in their detailed assessment, that more than one million Cambodians, depending of fisheries, would be negatively affected by the planned dams on the Mekong. They had recommended a 10-year moratorium for the construction of dams, pending further studies.


The arrest and sentencing of a Cambodian citizen for printing out seven copies from of a well known and publicly available web site sent shivers down the spine of many journalists and even ordinary users of the Internet: to look at a website critical of the government is legal – to print out a page seven time and share the copies with colleagues and friends can be a crime – to be sent to jail for 6 months.

Even when one fails to understand the decision of the court and its hasty decision, while dealing with other cases is delayed again and again, it is appropriate to insist on asking for a detailed explanation from the court, how this decision was done according to the law.

On 21 December 2010, a radio host in the USA was sentenced to 33 month in prison for statements he made on radio, for which he claimed protection, as he claimed to have exercised his right to freedom of expression. His claim was rejected by the court, as he was in disagreement with the decisions of three judges – and he had considered that they “deserve the ultimate punishment” for their action – to be killed – and so he published their photographs and the addresses of their places of work. To incite the public to murder and claim the legal freedom to do so? The US legal system could not agree.

The public, observing the case of the speedy conviction – for incitement – of a Cambodian citizen, for printing out a text from the Internet, critical of the government, would have more confidence in the courts if the court would provide detailed legal reasons why this act was of a much graver criminal nature than the overriding principles established in Article 41 of the Constitution, which says that “Khmer citizens shall have freedom of expression, press, publication and assembly. No one shall exercise this right to infringe upon the rights of others, to affect the good traditions of the society, to violate public law and order and national security.”

What are these “good traditions of society”? Is the “multi-party liberal democratic responsibility,” as stated in the Preamble of the Constitution 17 years ago, not yet part of these traditions?


The demonstration by Thai citizens in front of the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok, protesting against the arrest of several Thai citizens, in the border area, who went their with the intention to clarify claims that some Thai villagers are losing their land, is also an expression of their right to express their opinion freely. But an important detail should not be disregarded: the Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs had come to Phnom Penh to ask for their release, assuming they were arrested in a not yet demarcated border region. When he was presented with detailed information from the Cambodian side, that the arrest took place 1,2 km inside of Cambodian territory, he accepted this new information and declared that he now has accepted this new information and will wait for the decision of the Cambodian courts.


Maybe the public debate about the controversies about the Cambodian-Vietnamese border in the area, where some border markers were removed with the participation of the leader of the major opposition party – one act, separate from the question where the legitimate border is – might also have take a different course, if both sides, the government and the leader of the opposition, would have made details of their conflicting maps available to the media, to publish them side by side.

To make general statements is often easy, and it seems to establish a clear stand. To supply detailed arguments is often difficult. But at the end, details provide the final proof.

Norbert KLEIN

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 697 – Sunday, 2.1.2011
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror is a daily comprehensive summary and translation of the major Khmer language press - More about The Mirror


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