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The Media Serving the Public Interest

By: Norbert Klein Posted: March-28-2011 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 709

The Prime Minister announced on 24 March 2011 that the government had established “a new centralized task force to keep the media informed of matters in the public interest,” as the Phnom Penh Post reported. This Inter-Ministry Media Task Force “will comprise senior officials from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Council of Ministers.”

It is interesting that this new instrument will be “headed by Neang Phat, secretary of state from the Ministry of Defense, with Phay Siphan acting as deputy. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokseman Koy Kuong and Defense Ministry Spokesman Chhum Socheat will act as spokespersons for their respective ministries.”

Several implications of this decision are not yet clear – especially whether or how the spokespersons of other ministries, not mentioned here, will be functioning in future. It should be remembered that the government had taken specific actions to strengthen the flow of information from the government to the public in the past – like through the training of spokespersons for the military and for the national police in 2009 by the Ministry of Information, followed by another course for 26 officials from the Ministry of Rural Development; the Council of Ministers; the Ministry of Commerce; the Ministry of Tourism; the Ministry of Land Management, Urbanization, and Construction; the Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Energy; the Ministry of Agriculture; the Ministry of Information; the Ministry of Economy and Finance; the Ministry of Education Youth and Sports, and from the provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Kompong Cham, Ratanakiri, Pailin, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Battambang, and Mondolkiri.

“The Minister of Information, Mr. Khieu Kanharith, said during the opening ceremony on 13 July 2009 of the course for spokespersons, that to communicate with journalists and with people in general is really important – so that they can understand the policies and the positions that their respective institutions, ministries, and province administrations area taking, or have achieved.

“The Minister added, ‘What a spokesperson handles in public communication cannot do without an ethical attitude, as the task of a spokesperson is not easy, but we are persons in leading positions who can change the faces of our ministries or institutions, after something wrong has been done, as we can intervene to lessen controversies through the use of words.'

“Mr. Khieu Kanharith went on to say, ‘The spokespersons must tell the truth, but just some truth cannot be completely told – but there must be no lie. This is the principle that must be remembered, it is the golden principle that all spokespersons must remember.’ The Minister said that a lie by a spokespersons will initiate a loss of trust that will last forever. The task of a spokespersons is not just to communicate with journalists, but also to directly communicate with the public, and moreover with the public opinions expressed through the media, because a democratic society must have three elements: a multi-party system, an active civil society, and a strong and independent press. [Source: Kampuchea Thmey, Vol.8, #1995, 14.7.2009]

And in 2010, it was reported – even by the Chinese news agency Xinhua – that a “professional training course on 'Media, Public Relations and Spokesperson' was given here to 44 trainees from the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.” The report does not spell out why staff from this ministry were selected – maybe because of the frequent necessities to communicate policy to groups of people facing to loose the possibility to stay on the land where they used to stay before but are facing eviction. Information Minister Khieu Kanharith is reported to have given “recommendations to the trainees on what they gained from the course, saying that the spokesperson should have media skills and know how to keep files,” because to provide correct information is important. “He said the spokesperson should know what happened in the institution and should respond to the reporters on the ministry leaders' behalf.”

But in spite of these efforts, we often read in the press about situations where requested information to the public is not available – like the following examples randomly selected over recent weeks:

  • “Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng declined to comment yesterday, and other ministry officials referred questions to a spokesman who could not be reached.”
  • “Deputy commune chief In Saphorn said compensation for any property within 10 meters of the railway tracks was Toll's responsibility – Toll CEO David Kerr denied the claim, saying relocations were not his firm's responsibility.”
  • [Under the draft law, foreign NGOs will be forced to enter into an 'aid project or program' with leaders from the appropriate government ministry before they apply to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Foreign Ministry] “Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak declined to talk at length about the draft law. 'The draft aims to control the civil society, making the civil society under the law,' he said, before hanging up on a reporter.” – “Foreign Ministry spokesperson Koy Kuong said he had not seen a copy of the draft law” (on obliging foreign NGOs to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
  • [The Emaxx company, bringing totally new 4G telecommunication technology, has already invested US$75 million from unknown Cambodian investors in the country, and has a license for these developments since 2007. This became public only during the current week.] “Minister of Post and Telecommunications So Khun declined to comment yesterday. The ministry's director general, Mao Chakrya, said he was unaware of Emaxx, though the company produced a copy of its license from the ministry.”

So there is a lot to be done by the new task force “to keep the media informed of matters in the public interest.” It is obvious that this is not only a question of better coordination, but it is a question of the information policy to be implemented.

And all this happens at a time when the spread of the use of the Internet makes new patters of communication possible, diminishing and even partly replacing the role of traditional print media. A lot more information compared to earlier times is now available much quicker than before.

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States (1801 – 1809), has influenced the debate about the role of the press, and this not only in the USA, with his famous statement: "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." This was not an idealistic statement from a person who was not aware of the role of the press. It is said that “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, no president prior to the twentieth century has been more vilified by the US news media than Thomas Jefferson.” Four fifths of the 235 newspapers at his time were on the opposing side in the internal conflicts between the southern and northern states, where Jefferson had played important roles: he was the main drafter of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America (in 1776) from England, from 1789 – 1793 he was the first Secretary of State of the USA, then he became the second Vice President (1797–1801), and in 1801 the third President of the country.

In his commitment to the freedom of the press he had written in 1800 in a personal letter: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Towards this concern, he took also some quite practical steps: he had designed a portable printing device, and when he learned in 1783 that somebody had invented such a machine in London, he tried to get one: "Being desirous of getting from England as soon as possible one of those copying Machines invented there not long since... I take the Liberty of asking the favor of you to write thither for one for me, with half a dozen Reams of Paper proper for it..." And two years later, after he had received his portable instrument to produce printed sheets which could be distributed, he wrote to a friend: "Have you a copying press? If yo have not, yo should get one. Mine has cost me about 14 guineas. I would give ten times that sum that I had had it from the date of the stamp act." This refers to the year 1765, when activities had started to reject regulations considered to be oppressive. At that time, Jefferson was 22 years old – a young activist, to use a modern word.

His later reflection, how important it is to have a simple printing device to spread ideas working for social change, finds, in a way, its continuation in the present day posters written at protest and demonstrations, when ideas shared over the Internet are printed out and lead to wide social movements of liberation in the news all over the world: It is reported that about one million Egyptians signed up as members on the Internet on the social network Facebook during January. The portable copy machine has been replaced by the computer and the mobile phone on the Internet.

The President of the Club of Cambodian Journalists Pen Samitthi welcomed the Cambodian government’s new efforts to provide better information: “It’s better than the press not being able to access official information from the government.” This is definitely to be welcomed. This is in the context and environment of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia. As the Minister of Information said in 2009 when government spokespersons were trained: “a democratic society must have three elements: a multi-party system, an active civil society, and a strong and independent press.“

Norbert KLEIN

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 709 – Sunday, 27.3.2011
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 carries regular reports and comments from Cambodia - More about The Mirror


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