By Ben Rutledge

World Press Freedom Day celebrates its 20th anniversary today. The UN describes it as an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, to assess the state of press freedom and to defend the media from attacks on their independence. Cambodia is no exception.

At just 24 years old, Voice of Democracy (VOD) journalist Sun Narin is rapidly developing an impressive CV, having already worked as a freelance journalist at the Phnom Penh Post and more recently the Wall Street Journal. In the aftermath of the Koh Pich bridge tragedy in 2010, Narin served the Journal as a translator. He now works at VOD producing news articles on a range of political, human rights related and international issues. VOD is known as the only national independent radio station in Cambodia providing live and impartial news.

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Having graduated from the prestigious Department of Media and Communications (DMC) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Narin tells me that the DMC, is still the academic training ground for journalists and communication practitioners in Cambodia. This is less because of the rigorous entrance exams, small class sizes and high standards, and more because it is still the only higher educational establishment in the country offering media-related courses. “There is nowhere else to go,” he says.

Sun Narin interviews United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Mr Surya Subedi in December 2012. Pic: AP.

Narin claims that despite this, most of his classmates did not even want to become journalists when they graduated. They said that the profession is ‘risky’ and not well paid. They tended to gravitate towards careers in advertising and PR which is more lucrative and safer. Ironically, journalists who did not attend the DMC and who persisted in accepting low wages and the risks involved are often not considered journalists at all because of their lack of professional qualifications. Narin says that they are accused of lacking the necessary knowledge and professional standards. “This is one of the biggest challenges for Cambodia in developing an independent and trustworthy media”. There are not enough opportunities to study, and these are often taken by students who do not want to pursue careers in journalism. “We badly need more independent journalists”.

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In light of the murder of Hang Serei Oudom last year, a reporter for the local Virakchum Khmer Daily newspaper, I asked him how safe he feels it is to work as a journalist in Cambodia today. He describes how that if you work for a Government-backed organisation, you are not in much danger. However, if you work for an independent organisation, the risks are much greater.

“If you are different from other media organisations, you are considered an opposition supporter. If you work for RFA [Radio Free Asia] or VOD, you always have to consider your safety,” he said. He admits to taking sensitive information out that he knows to be correct, but that is not public knowledge. This is when “it is too critical of the Government”. He insists that he does not change the emphasis of his stories, but he may omit particularly risky information when necessary. “I don’t want to be in jail. I want the freedom to continue writing.”

Narin goes on to describe some of the threats that media organisations receive. He refers to the Government’s comments about RFA’s reporting on Preah Vihear in March 2013. A government spokesman warned the broadcaster against potentially inciting reporting on land loss along the Thai border, calling it a “national security” issue that could prompt legal action. “These threats affect us all. We discussed the legal case against RFA during our editorial meeting earlier in the week. VOD planned to cover this but we decided to postpone the broadcast.” Narin claims that more threats have been issued in 2013 than in previous years and speculates that this is because it is an election year.

The US State Department released a highly critical report on the human rights situation in Cambodia which stated that “the government, military forces, and the ruling political party continued to dominate the broadcast media and influence the content of broadcasts. All television stations and most radio stations were controlled or strongly influenced by the CPP.” I ask Narin if he thought this was a fair representation of the situation, and if it was, where he saw his future 10 years from now. He replied that the report was correct, but that he is optimistic for change. “I am a person for society, not a person for myself. In 10 years’ time, things will be different. There will be more independent media in Cambodia.”

Interview conducted by Ben Rutledge, Development Consultant at the Cambodia Centre for Independent Media. World Press Freedom Day 2013 focuses on the theme “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”. To find out more, visit UNESCO at http://www.unesco.org/new/?id=46282 or CCIM at http://www.ccimcambodia.org/