Information for democracy’s sake

The story will be published in Lift Magazine, the Phnom Penh Post tomorrow

Sun Narin

“Let people know the facts, and the country will be safe,” were the words of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States.

With his usual talent for combining eloquence and brevity, Lincoln needed only these 12 words to describe the crucial importance of an educated, well-informed society in maintaining a functioning democracy.

Also implied in this statement is the necessity of strong institutions for journalism and education to distribute this information and a government that makes accurate and applicable information available.

Cambodia was ranked 154 out of 180 countries in the Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, making Cambodia one of the least trusted governments by its people.

It doesn’t take more than a few calls to government officials for journalists in Cambodia to understand what this means for people who rely on official information and statements do their job.

“I am busy with my work,” is a common excuse given by government officials when called by journalists.

“You should ask my higher-ranking person in my ministry.”

“You should ask another groups working on this.”

“You have to send an application, with questions, requesting an interview.”

Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, suggested that government officials do not speak to journalists partly because they don’t understand the principle of democratic society, a free press and individual rights of speech and expression.

Secondly, he said, the Kingdom’s bureaucracy is so tight that officials do not dare to say anything that might attract the scorn of higher-ranking officials and possibly cost them their job.

“We do not have a freedom of information law requiring state institutions to differentiate between genuinely confidential information and information that they would simply prefer to share.”

“They [government’s officials] can refuse to talk to journalists because there is no law to punish them,” he said, adding that some journalists have invited a negative reaction from the government by showing a pattern or hostility in their treatment of government sources.

Pa Nguon Teang, the director of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media, said that the political environment of the country is not subject to a democratic process

“Some officials do not dare to speak to journalists because they are involved in corruption,” he said. “They do also not have the ability to work through and understand related information so they refuse to comment.

“No law forces them to speak, so they choose to be silent. People have to express their wish that [government] officials serve the public by providing information to the journalists,” he said.

The Royal Government of Cambodia committed to passing a freedom of information (FOI) law to meet international standards in 2003, but despite various public and private workshops and discussions on drafts of the act, no law has been passed a decade after their initial deadline passed.

According to Law on the Regime of the Press which was enacted in 1995, article 5 states that requests for information shall be made in writing and specify clearly of the information which is requested to the institutions. The law continues that competent officials who govern the responsible institution shall respond in writing to the request within 30 days. If the request is denied in whole or in part, reasons for such denial shall be indicated clearly in writing.

While the law does require some accountability from the government, it allows the government to stall long enough to be of little use to journalists often writing on a deadline.

Although a number of government decentralization and accountability efforts have been launched over the past decade to bring decisions closer to the people they impact, the rigid hierarchy of the ruling party also contributes to the refusal of local officials to talk with journalists and open their doors to citizens.

Journalists, after all, work to pry off the lid on stories related to official improprieties, inefficiencies and contradictions, leaving officials fearing for their job little choice but fighting back to keep them sealed.

The fact that politicians in Cambodia have a negative attitude toward journalists is no offence in itself; even Lincoln offered tame criticisms on particularly aggressive journalists. He is quoted in a biography by Richard J. Carwardine as saying that “he should judge the line of tactics which [a certain type of journalist (s)] intended to pursue was that of personal ridicule.”In modern English: some journalists are trying to make him look bad, rather than pursing accuracy.

Lincolns distaste for hostile journalists is, in many ways, a precondition of democratic politicians who followed, with public persona and professional aspirations irreversibly intertwined. Lincoln reserved criticism, after all, must be seen within the context of his earlier quote. In the end, he trusted that the facts would speak for themselves, and felt no need to silence smear campaigns as he believed their untruth would be inevitably exposed.

While Lincoln and Hun Sen may both prefer that journalists do not dirty their names in print (or on TV and the Computer), Lincoln’s government showed unwavering respect for the right to freedom of the press and, simply put, Cambodia’s government has not.

Cambodia’s press was again labelled “not free” in the Freedom of the Press 2011 report, released by United States-based watchdog organisation Freedom House, and the Kingdom fell seven spots to 141 out of 196 countries and territories rated this year.

“This is the confusing concept held by the government: that providing information on negative points to the public is bad,” Moeun Chhean Nariddh said. “In democratic nations, there are checks and balances. The government cannot see their mistakes on all sides. The public and the journalists are their only eyes.”

“Information is a great democratizing power, allowing us a chance to effect change and alleviate poverty,” said Koffi Anan, who was replaced by Ban Ki-moon as the United Nations secretary-general of the United Nations in 2007. The free flow of information, to the man who once led the most powerful international governing body in the world, should not only be tolerated by policy-makers, it is a tool to eliminate the ills of the societies they serve.

Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), a German foundation for political education, has been active in Cambodia’s media sector since 1994. They are currently working with existing Cambodian institutions to improve access public information in the sub-national level, as part of their democratic development initiative. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Information in 2010 to train government officials at the local level in public relations with the aim of opening channels for information to reach the general public.

KAS Country Representative Rabea Brauer, said that the governors or other officials of sub-national levels are often willing to inform the public when asked, but do not see informing the public about major developments or decisions as part of their professional responsibilities.

“Being the provincial governors, being the head of the provincial councils, you want information flow,” Rabea  Brauer says. “You want to reach out to your citizens. You want them to feel responsible and accept your decisions. You want them to participate and respect your work.”

She said that KAS would provide information officers for the upcoming training, which would educate officials from every province on the methods and techniques of a responsible spokesmen, in order to establish link between citizens and the administration controlling many aspects of their life.

“In the future we will see a demand for more information on both sides, including the government,” she said, going on to point out that today many officials are still unable to deal confidently and comfortably with the current amount of media coverage.

Sieng Suthang, the vice governor of Battambang province, who is one of three KAS trained spokesmen in the county, said that gathering and distributing information has been quite easy for him to integrate into his other professional responsibilities. He says he just looks at the reports being released and stays in constant contact with others working within the government in Battambang.

“It is necessary and it is the role and responsibility of the sub-national administration to serve the public,” he said, also admitting that journalists still beat them to some stories.

As Sieng Suthang sees it, his duty to share information extends to issues of land concessions and corruption, explaining that if he does not tackle these questions there is no one else in his jurisdiction who can.

“There is no reason to hide information and there are no higher level people prohibiting us. If we know the issue clearly, we will tell the media, but we have to find out explicitly,” Sieng Suthang said.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith was unavailable when contacted to comment on this story, but he told the workshop on “Improving Outreach, Public Relation and Information Strategies on Sub-National Level”, organized by KAS last month, that public relation officers play a key role in the governments handling of information. “They are bridges to provide information to the people through the media.”

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