11.05.2011 - The Cambodia Daily

On Press Freedom Day, Consider Cambodia’s Digital Divide

World Press Freedom Day is a day to reflect, all around the world, on the fundamental principles of press freedom, evaluate the state of press freedom, defend the media from attacks on their independence, and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

Every day, journalists work to serve an essential role in delivering information that affects important decisions that we make concerning our families and livelihoods. Also, media independence and pluralism are prerequisites and major factors of democratization. Journalists, therefore, play an essential role in promoting good governance and transparency, and reducing corruption. Yet despite and because of their important role, all around the world, journalists are targets of harassment, intimidation and physical assault.

Press freedom is at the very core of the right to free expression, providing a frontline defense for safeguarding access to knowledge and information as defined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The theme for World Press Freedom Day 2011 is “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers” which focuses on the potential of Internet and digital platforms as well as the more established forms of journalism in contributing to freedom of expression, democratic governance and sustainable development. Most of the world is now communicating almost instantly across cities, regions and the globe using wireless and satellite technologies to send high-speed electronic messages. These tools, used to package and transmit information and knowledge, are broadly referred to as Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The gap between those with access to ICT and those without is generally referred to as the “digital divide”.

New media has also empowered Cambodian citizens to access information, express themselves, and participate in public debate more than ever. However, in Cambodia, there exists a great digital divide with around one percent of the population having access to internet according to a 2010 review by the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Given that timely access to information and news can promote trade, education, employment, health and wealth, what are some of the things that can be done to close this information gap and allow citizens to use internet, mobile phones and social networks as platforms for democratic discussion and civic participation? How can we promote new media in Cambodia, and use it as tool to expand space for expression and access to information? Such important topics will be the basis of a rich and diverse discussion on World Press Freedom Day.

Much of the drive to expand ICT access stems from the belief that such technologies are tools for sustainable development. These new information technologies can rapidly change the lives of people: In some rural areas, farmers can get real-time information on market prices in the capital; entrepreneurs who in the past were not able to get a dial tone on their hand-line telephones can now connect immediately using internet telephony; an open and distance-learning could also become an affordable option for students who do not have access to face-to-face education.

Numerous efforts are made on the Government’s side:  the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has elaborated a Master-Plan for ICT in Education (2009-2013) to develop ICT-based professional  skills needed by graduates for employment “in order to ensure that Cambodia can compete and cooperate in an increasingly interconnected world”.

The Media Training Center at the Ministry of Information has been working on strengthening the capacity of governmental and private media in Cambodia through the utilization of technologies to disseminate important information to the rural and remote provinces. Recently, there has been a series of training on educating provincial broadcasters and journalists on community-level communication which included aspects of utilization of ICT among media professionals, and improving information dissemination through new and traditional communication channels. In an effort to keep Cambodian journalists abreast of new tools for communication, the Ministry of Information has recently proposed to implement trainings on online journalism.

The UN in Cambodia provides support and services aimed at improving the freedom and capacity of the press. We provide advisory services on media legislation, and work with governments, parliamentarians and other decision-makers to guarantee free expression. In this regard, the work of journalist associations to create a free, independent and pluralistic media scene in Cambodia through advocacy work in press freedom, journalist protection and training should be commended and further enhanced.

A free and pluralistic media and access to information are key to nurturing a young democracy and enabling Cambodia to make further strides in its march toward middle-income status. The UN stands ready to assist and calls on all partners to equally prioritize press freedom and ways to bridge the digital divide to build a knowledge-based society in Cambodia.

Published in Cambodia Daily 3rd of May 2011

By Douglas Broderick and Anne Lemaistre

Douglas Broderick is the UN Resident Coordinator in Cambodia and Anne Lemaistre is the Representative of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Cambodia.

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