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IN CAMBODIAN MEDIA,
‘IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS’

On any given day, local news outlets offer readers a dizzying – and potentially disturbing – array of photographs and articles documenting violence around the country in graphic detail. Often, the reporting ignores ethical guidelines, subjecting readers to gratuitous imagery and violating the privacy of the subjects

Journalists arrive at a crime scene in January 2012
Journalists arrive at a crime scene in January 2012. Heng Chivoan

Theary was spending her lunch break scanning her Facebook feed, on a bench outside the garment factory where she worked, when something caught her eye.

It was a story about a traffic accident in Banteay Meanchey, her home province, posted by a local news website. She clicked on the link, which transported her to the horrific scene, with graphic images of three people dead on the road, covered in blood. One even showed the crushed skull of a victim.

Although their names were not known yet, she recognised one of them, and her spoon dropped from her hand as she fainted. It was her cousin – her closest one.

Although a year has passed, the picture is still in Theary’s mind. She asked not to be identified by her full name out of fear of retribution from her employer for speaking to the press.

“I was so shocked to see him in that state,” she says. “Losing him is bad enough for me. Now, I no longer use Facebook because I am afraid to see such pictures again.”

Graphic imagery is ubiquitous, often on online news sites.
Graphic imagery is ubiquitous, often on online news sites. Hong Menea

Such images – of the bloody outcomes of accidents and violence – and the posting of other ethically questionable information like the names of victims of sexual assault, or those of minors who are suspected of crimes, populate the diverse landscape of Cambodian journalism, from small online or Facebook-only news sites to established newspapers.

In one example on August 20, 2010, Koh Santepheap Daily, one of the oldest existing Khmer-language newspapers in Cambodia – whose name translates to “the island of peace” – accompanied an article about a man killing five members of his family and himself with the pictures of dead bodies, including one of a 2-year-old child. Almost seven years later, the newspaper is still publishing such graphic, and identifying, pictures, including one on Monday of a man found dead in Kampong Chhnang province, with a close-up picture showing the wound where a bullet impacted one victim’s head.

In another example, the monthly Khmer-language magazine Procheabreay published an article on an August 2015 rape case in which the suspect was a 15-year-old boy and the victim a 14-year-old girl. The article shows the face and tells the name of the arrested minor, as well as the abbreviated name of the woman, her village and district and the name of the guardian who filed the complaint.

While writing about sensitive issues like politics or business can quickly draw the attention of the government, when it comes to gore, the Cambodian media market is as unregulated as the Wild West, and in place of laws, few outlets fill the void with standards of journalism practised elsewhere that are designed to protect both subjects and readers.

A newsstand in the capital with an array of papers, some of which violate ethical guidelines by publishing graphic content
A newsstand in the capital with an array of papers, some of which violate ethical guidelines by publishing graphic content. Sahiba Chawdhary

Reading a newspaper while waiting for customers in Tuol Tompoung, motodop Heang Soung, 52, says he likes to keep track of what is happening around him through print and, recently, online media. Bloody images are nothing new to him.

“Some pictures, such as those of the dead body with cut throats or without heads really make me afraid and disgusted, although some of them are partly blurred,” he says. “But at least they can confirm [the incidents] really happened, and give the information about the victims – who they are, what they look like.”
 

Blood on the page

A quick scan of the news on Wednesday showed no fewer than 20 graphic and unblurred photos of corpses across just five local media outlets, and seven stories about rape cases, each showing blurred pictures of victims – all under the age of 18.

Pol Saroeun, editor-in-chief of Koh Santepheap Daily, told Post Weekend that his newspaper does not publish images that show violence, although there may be blood in the pictures.

“They are just the pictures of the dead,” he said. “Everyone dies, everybody knows that. We did not show any violence or atrocity.”

A tuk-tuk driver reads the newspaper as he waits for passengers
A tuk-tuk driver reads the newspaper as he waits for passengers. Sahiba Chawdhary

Nonetheless, Chhay Sophal, a member of the board of the Club of Cambodian Journalists and a lecturer at the Department of Media and Communication of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said such gratuitous imagery violates his association’s code of conduct.

“According to our association’s code of ethics, the media cannot publish pictures of dead bodies or blood, except those in high-profile cases where it is necessary to identify the victims,” he said. “Instead, they can use pictures that show that the incident happened, for example an overturned truck.”

Sophal explained that the code does not only restrict the use of pictures but also the text, headlines and information. For instance, a reporter cannot describe violence “too realistically” in writing, or give out the information that could reveal the identity of the victims in sensitive cases that could bring shame or risk to them and their family. Yet there is no punishment for violation, he said, due to the “so-called right of the journalists”.

Article 7 of the country’s Law on the Press, adopted by the National Assembly in 1995, suggests journalist associations create a “code of ethics” that prohibits “publication of obscene texts or pictures and graphically violent materials” and “calumny, defamation, [and] unfounded humiliation”. However, without threat of punishment, such guidelines are widely ignored.

Ouk Kimseng, an undersecretary of state and spokesman for the Ministry of Information, said his ministry recognises the flaws in the law, which resulted from the circumstances at the time it was adopted.

“According to our association’s code of ethics, the media cannot publish pictures of dead bodies or blood, except those in high-profile cases where it is necessary to identify the victims”

“In 1995, our country had just taken its first step towards a free press,” he says. “There were a lot of things to improve, but at that time, we wanted the press associations, which are allowed by the law, to correct the journalists.”

Kimseng called the publishing of disturbing content “a terrible deviance”, and blamed it on the journalists’ lack of understanding of professional ethics.

Pa Nguon Teang, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said the prevalence of graphic imagery can be explained by market demands.

“They always want to know when something happened – that’s what Cambodian people are like,” he said. “The editors of media outlets believe their paper will sell well if they put in such content, especially images on it.”

A former reporter and photographer at a local new website, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his former employer, said stories with pictures showing death or injury are popular among readers, which was why his editor focused so much on them.

“We earn money through advertisements, and more clicks and views means more money,” he said. “I often had to travel at night to look for traffic accidents to work on, using smartphones as my camera, but we also took pictures and information from Facebook and foreign sites.”

Social media has also contributed to the rise of “citizen journalism”, which in part explains the phenomenon of crowds of people whipping out their smartphones at any sign of disaster.

“When they see a traffic accident on the way, they will stop and take the photo, then post the photos on Facebook,” Sophal said. “They want people to like their photos or to prove that they are brave enough to take them, forgetting that they are not professional journalists, and their photos are likely to contain disturbing content, especially casualties.”

‘Nightcrawler’ journalist Khem Visal in 2015, one of the reporters chasing accidents at night.
‘Nightcrawler’ journalist Khem Visal in 2015, one of the reporters chasing accidents at night. Heng Chivoan

And while the Information Ministry says it would like outlets to use discretion in publishing graphic images, sometimes the photographs come from the authorities themselves. On the National Police website, images of corpses abound. Usually, though not always, they are blurred.

A July 18 post features a picture of a drowned 1-year-old baby with his face shown. Neither Ath Bony, the editor-in-chief of the National Police’s website, nor Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, could be reached for comment.

A mental toll

Dr Ka Sunbaunat, a prominent psychiatrist and the former dean of the University of Health Sciences, believes the onslaught of graphic imagery in the press could be causing harm to mental health.

“Whenever I log on Facebook, I see bloody, terrible content,” he says. “Media outlets and Facebook users are posting them for their own benefit, ignoring the negative impact on people’s mental health.”

Sunbaunat explained that “scary” content published by local media and Facebook users can contribute to and worsen post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One of his patients, who survived the Koh Pich stampede that killed 347 people during the Water Festival in November 2010, now struggles to avoid seeing images that bring her back to that night and revive her trauma.

“The pictures of the terrible death always remind her of what she saw that night, the pile of dying people begging for help, making her cry and tremble,” he said. “Although she survived, that view is haunting her, and it could be like that for the rest of her life if she does not seek medical help.”

The proliferation of such material, he added, could also serve to normalise violence, making would-be criminals more likely to use it.

A self-regulating solution?

While censorship is impossible, the Information Ministry’s Ouk Kimseng says the government is working to address this issue, focusing on creating codes of conducts as guidelines.

Just yesterday, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs signed a joint code of conduct on reporting on violence against women. The code sets out a number of principles for media outlets to follow – for example, avoiding publishing pictures or information that could reveal the identity of victims of violence or abuse and their families, as well as publishing graphic photographs in cases of violence against women. Lastly, it prohibits the use of offensive language that demeans or disrespects women.

The purpose is to protect women’s honour as well as to protect them from long-term psychological impact, Kimseng said, but it lacks punishment in case of violations and does not address circumstances of violence against other groups.

However, he said some points, such as the publication of nude photographs, are still punishable by existing law, and people can also sue media outlets for publishing false information harmful to their reputation or dignity.

“When we have the common codes of conduct but the media outlets still violate them we will have to set up a law, which will bring an enforcement mechanism,” he said. “So, all the journalists: please do not say we restrict your freedom when we do that.”

Ros Sopheap, executive director of NGO Gender and Development for Cambodia, welcomed the code of conduct, saying women are especially vulnerable to journalists’ ethical lapses, which cause them to suffer humiliation, or in the worst cases to commit suicide.

“Media outlets should not further turn female victims in sensitive cases into the victims of their lack of ethics,” she said.

Kimseng called the posting of disturbing content published by citizen journalists on social media a “headache”, not only for Cambodia but elsewhere, but said the ministry has not come up with any measure to handle this.

In the meantime, Pa Nguon Teang, the executive director of CCIM, argued that penalties to curb the posting of graphic content are unadvisable as they could be used as excuses for the government to restrict press freedom.

Instead, training professional journalists and educating people in general about the ethics of journalism, he believes, could solve the problem.

“What we need to do is turn Cambodian journalists into the ones that follow ethical codes and have the people understand them. Don’t support anything opposing them [journalists],” he said. “The market, the readers in particular, should be a force strong enough to punish unprofessional journalists.”

Author’s note

Criticising other reporters or media outlets violates a long-held journalistic norm, but for this story I think and believe an exception is justified.

A dear friend of mine often told me that you do not know what something feels like until you live that experience. That was exactly the case when I saw the body of that same friend hanging from a noose in a photo on my Facebook newsfeed.

Clearly, something pushed her to throw her life away.

Reporting on suicides is often avoided as it requires great care. A story on the subject can just as easily help prevent the tragedy as it can spur a series of copycat acts, a phenomenon known as suicide contagion. In many Western countries, government-endorsed guidelines exist to avoid rationalising, romanticising or otherwise sensationalising suicides in the news. In other cases outside of suicide, including those involving sexual violence, great care is expected of journalists not to subject victims to even more trauma. In Cambodia, it often seems that obligation has been forgotten.

So while I cannot understand or say why she committed the act, it was nonetheless done in the intimacy of her own home. Yet the image of that last, private act was posted by authorities and shared by local media with little to no context. Within just a few hours it had gone viral. I saw people’s comments about her, some calling her stupid, some saying she deserved to die because she did not care about her family. Those hurt me, maybe as much as would hurt her soul, friends or family.

Despite it being an unethical-yet-common practice in Cambodia’s media, the damage to friends and family that the posting of such images can do became my motivation to work on this story and break an unwritten rule of journalism.

This article is dedicated to my friend.