New media network emerged amid the worst of media freedom in Cambodia

By Kalyan Sann, Fojo’s Coordinator for Cambodia and Laos

Nop Vy, the Executive Director of CamboJA.
Hem/Nyheter/New media network emerged amid the worst of media freedom in Cambodia

Since late 2017, Cambodia plunked down rank every year in world media freedom index (from #132 in 2017 to #144 in 2020). The deterioration of media freedom worsened whith opposition party being dissolved just one year before the national election in July 2018; followed by the crack down on independent media such as The Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia, the shutdown of almost 20 radio stations and a few international NGOs, the arrest of 2 former Radio Free Asia reporters. As of July 2020, there is no improvement towards the country’s media freedom. The world continued seeing journalists and human rights workers being harassed, arrested, detained, sent to court while doing their jobs or having their license cancelled. While the concerning situation continued, a glim of light emerged. Cambodia Journalist Alliance (CamboJA) launched in late 2019, vowed to protect journalists and fight for media freedom in Cambodia. The organization is gaining recognition and support from local and international media development organizations and donors.

Fojo’s national coordinator for Cambodia, Kalyan Sann, has a conversation with Nop Vy, the Executive Director of CamboJA.

Q: Can you tell me how CamboJA was established?

The idea to establish CamboJA started in late 2017 after seeing many independent media and international NGOs being closed-down that pushed many reporters and staff out of their jobs. Later that same year, 2 former RFA reporters were arrested and jailed, and no media club or association provided them any legal assistance. There are many other incidents when journalists being stopped, questioned or detained by local authorities. We also observed that none of the journalist associations or clubs in the country really committed to protect journalism. So, a group of independent journalists and me, back then worked as a Media Director at Voice of Democracy (VOD) at Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), approached the international media development groups. We called for the meeting with about 18 of Cambodian journalists with UN agencies, UNESCO and OHCHR. We did not get any support at that time, but CCIM has small budget for our mobilization and meetings. So, from February 2019, we began our weekly meeting and we proceeded our work step by step with registration, voting for board of management, and planning activities. CamboJA received license from Ministry of Information on 9 September and launched in 13 December 2019.

Q: What are CamboJA’s vision and mission?

CamboJA’s vision is to see journalists having complete freedom to perform their work, to exercise their duty to report freely and safely without censorship or pressure from any party. We also provide all supports needed in order for journalists to do their job freely and independently.

Our mission is to promote press freedom, strengthen journalism’s professionalism, provide all means of assistances to journalists, and to protect journalists from any kind pressure, harassment or threats.

Q: What are the areas of work CamboJA focus?

Right now, CamboJA has two main programs. First program is to promote access to in-depth and credible information. CamboJA provides publishing platforms (cambojanews.com both in Khmer and English language). We also engage our journalists with other journalist regionally and internationally, so that they can have their bylines and stories publish in other platforms as well. We also provide story fee and travel expenses if they need to conduct field research.

Second program is relating to legal support and support on physical and mentally safety and security for our members. We provide lawyers and legal consultancy shall any members need any time. We organise regular orientation sessions on legal impacts on journalist work. We also provide self-care and counseling service to our members.

There will be a third program which focus on capacity development for professional journalist. That would include capacity building, development of standard journalist code of ethic, minimum standard of professionalism etc. We develop a model that will be available for any media houses that want to use it in their own institutions. We also provide technical support to media houses those want to develop their own internal policies.

The fourth program will focus on research advocacy. The program will deliver our investigation and research in-depth to the cases against journalists. The cases will be combined and used for advocacy purposes. This program is also for retired journalists. They are the great resource for journalism, and we don’t want those knowledge and experiences go to waste. They can choose any topics they feel confident, and we will provide grant for their research. We also do advocacy works with the focus on the country’s press freedom, right to access to information, advocacy for women journalists etc.

Q: Since the establishment, how many projects has CamboJA been implementing?

We have been implementing 6 projects already. First project is legal support to journalist funded by German embassy. Second project is in collaboration with Canal France International (CFI) focus on scientific talk and reporting. The third project is in collaboration with UNESCO on campaign to raise awareness on Covid-19 among journalists. We created Do/Don’t guideline for journalists during Covid-19 period. Fourth project is in collaboration with American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) to provide story grants to our members to report on labor issues and provide capacity building on labor reporting.

The fifth and sixth project are in collaboration with KHANA to develop a public health guideline for reporters, and with Transparency International Cambodia to develop a three-years capacity building project on social development reporting.

We have a few more projects that are set to begin later this year. Currently, our proposal is under the review of one of the biggest donors in the region.

Q: Talking about news, what kind of news does CamboJA team produce?

We do not produce breaking news. Our team only produce investigative, analytical, in-depth reports. So, the reporting process take sometimes for a reporter to produce each story. But, when it is ready, it is a thorough and in-depth news report.

Q: How many members are there in CamboJA?

As of now, CamboJA has 70 members and 15 board members. Everyday, we keep receiving new membership applications.

We have 8 full-time staff and 18 freelancers in which 8 are reporters, 3 photo journalists, 4 translators, 3 associate editors.

Q: What are the criteria to be a member of CamboJA?

Any journalist can apply to be a member of CamboJA. However, to be approved a membership, the journalist must share the same value as CamboJA. We will check if journalist is independent, professional, if she/he has the integrity and being a responsible person. If they don’t share the same value, they cannot be the members of CamboJA.

Q: What are CamboJA’s strengths and weaknesses?

Being professional and independent is our core strength. All of our members are independent and professional journalists.  All board members are from international standard media organizations and they are neutral. Secondly, CamboJA is, in the meantime, the only institution that commit to protect journalists. Thirdly, CamboJA is courageous and adventurous and we receive support from many local and international media development organisations. Fourth, Cambodia is a committed organization to promote gender equally in journalism. Among our 8 staff, 4 are women. More than 30% of our members are women.

For weaknesses, firstly, CamboJA does not have enough human resources yet. We are trying to recruit more people to work with us. Secondly, we have not had administrative systems and policies that needed to be in place yet, but we are developing them now. Without proper systems and policies, it is difficult to earn trust from big donors.

Q: What challenges do you foresee awaiting CamboJA?

We registered with Ministry of Information, we earned our license, but we can lose it any time if the government is not happy with us. Government can cancel our license or block us from conducting some activities. That’s the biggest challenge that we need to be cautious. Other challenges are more internally that we can overcome, like lacking of policies and systems, and we are working on it.

Q: Thank you very much for all the information. Can you tell me about yourself?

About myself! I never thought that I would be a media professional. My young-self wanted to be a medical doctor or a lawyer because I wanted to help people and I believed I could help people only through those two professions. My family is poor farmers from Takeo province. I finished high school in my home town in 1999 and came to Phnom Penh to apply for scholarship in law school and medical school. However, being a naïve country boy, I did not manage to get myself into the university and ended up working in the construction site. With my hard-earned money, I enrolled in evening English language and computer classes.

In 2000, I started volunteering in some local NGOs until 2002 I got a job as reporter at Radio FM 93.5. I became a reporter without any prior training; I learned through my work and gradually developed my capacity through short trainings and supports from more experienced journalist like the late Mr. Reach Sambath. In 2006, I formed a freelance reporter group produced news and sold to some local radio stations. In 2007, I joined the newly established CCIM as a script writer, later reporter and coordinator, and from 2011 I started to involve in the management level.

Q: How do you feel about where you are now?

Being Executive Director of CamboJA is another unexpected turn for me. Since my first involvement in establishment of CamboJA, I did not plan to leave CCIM. I just wanted to be the chair of board who involve with producing policies and doing advocacy works. But, I had to take up the Executive Director position after the first director resigned.

Q: What is your commitment for CamboJA?

As Executive Director of CamboJA, I will be a role model for my fellow journalists. I will create a strong foundation for CamboJA. I will make sure CamboJA has all policies and systems in place and smooth operational management. I will not hold on to the position for long. According to CamboJA’s policy, ED can only serve twice of 4-year term if that ED is voted by the board for the second term. So, in the next 8 years, I promise my successor a smooth and strong CamboJA that will never lose its commitment.

Q: What do you want to do after finishing your term in CamboJA?

I have not given up on my childhood dream yet. I have obtained a master degree from law school. So, I will go back to law school and be a lawyer. Then, I will continue to help journalists and our society.