Sunday,2007-05-06: Word Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2007

Posted on 7 May 2007. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 506 |

The Mirror, Vol. 11, No. 506

Together with the development of different systems of modern states in Europe, the role of the press was also recognized more and more. The French King Louis XVI, trying to appease criticism against the absolute power of the king and the political movements which led to the French Revolution in 1789, called representatives of different sections of society for a kind of national conference, inviting persons from each of the “three estates” – 600 commoners from the middle classes, 300 representatives of the church, and 300 members of the nobility. Maybe it can be said that the motto of the Kingdom of Cambodia: “Nation, Religion, King” relates similarly to such three elements of society?

Some decades later, Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish historian, wrote in 1841, using the new terms of a “fourth estate” – the press. He pointed to the journalists sitting in the observers section of the British parliament, “and they are more important than all the parliamentarians.” He saw that all those who write and print are of fundamental importance for a democracy:

“Printing, which comes necessarily out of writing, I say often, is equivalent to democracy: invent writing, and democracy is inevitable… Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has…, the requisite thing is, that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.”

More than another hundred years later – in 1993 – the activities of the free media had obviously become so dangerous for many who hold power, that the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to establish a World Press Freedom Day, to be celebrated on 3 March of every year. The UN agency UNESCO should be supporting “independent media in zones of conflict, to enable them to play an active role in conflict prevention and resolution and the transition towards a culture of peace.”

The situation seems to continue to be serious. Mr. Matsuura Kôïchirô, Director-General of UNESCO, declared for 2007: “With violence against media professionals constituting today one of the greatest threats to freedom of expression, I have decided to dedicate World Press Freedom Day 2007 to the theme of journalists’ safety.”

That this dedication was made in response to a grave reality was made clear during a conference at the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day, held on 3 May in Phnom Penh, where it was disclosed that the year 2006 had been the worst year on record, with more than 150 people from the media killed, and hundreds more arrested or threatened because of their work.

This grim picture contrasted with positive changes in the international assessment of the media situation in Cambodia, presented at the same conference, with reference to Reporters without Borders: “Over the past five years, Cambodia has consistently ranked in the top three ASEAN countries; that is quite impressive. Cambodia was the only Asian country to decriminalize defamation last year.”

In spite of such positive evaluations, other problems were reported at the conference in Phnom Penh: “Does freedom of the press mean that journalists are free to write anything they like?” And especially: “The big question in Cambodia, however, is why do some journalists constantly violate ethical standards? Accepting ‘bribes in any form are a grave form of professional abuse’ under Cambodian law. Yet we regularly see journalists turning up at press conferences expecting to receive money simply for being there.”

The problem of the freedom of the press is a complex one. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

It describes why the freedom of expression, as a basic human right, shall be protected. But it does not say how it is to be used actively. Do we see that Thomas Carlyle’s vision has a real function in our society, as he described it:

“…invent writing, and democracy is inevitable… Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government…”

Fortunately – as an example for the functioning of the media – the information shared during the World Press Freedom conference was taken up in the Khmer press, which we documented on Saturday 5 May 2007, that the National Assembly, which has 123 elected representatives, currently has more than 3,000 employees, while only about 200 come to work daily – that means that there are about 25 employees per representative. There is probably no other country in the world with such a ratio.

It can only be hoped that the reward, made available to support the best investigative reporting – also reported in our edition yesterday – will be a further incentive towards a functional democratic society, where everybody who can speak to the public becomes part of the public powers, helping to care for justice and the well being of all members of society.

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