An above-the-fold photo on the Kampuchea Thmey daily’s front page on Saturday showed some of a reported 20,000 Cambodian People’s Party supporters, flags fluttering in the air as they rode their motorbikes down one of Phnom Penh’s main streets.
Conspicuously absent from the paper, however, was news of a separate gathering, at which an exhilarated crowd of about 100,000 Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters lined streets from the Phnom Penh International Airport to Freedom Park, to celebrate opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s return after nearly four years of self-imposed exile.
“It was a historic event,” said Lao Mong Hay, an independent political analyst. “But the resounding silence in the media is also an event in itself.”
Khmer-language newspapers published Friday and over the weekend across the Kingdom ignored Rainsy’s return or mentioned him only tangentially. A story in Friday’s Norkowat News said Rainsy supports the government’s stance on border defence, while Kampunchea Thmey reported that Rainsy cannot run for office during this year’s election.
Rainsy’s return came after he received a Royal pardon a week ago, exonerating him from an 11-year prison sentence many feel was politically motivated.
But rather than covering the long-absent opposition leader’s impending return or the mammoth outpouring of support among party faithful, the weekend edition of Koh Santepheap daily ran a Page One feature on increased tourism in Phnom Penh. Rasmei Kampuchea’s Saturday edition, meanwhile, featured photos of a proud student receiving her doctoral diploma from Chamroeun University of Polytechnology.
“The [local media] follows the CPP party and tries not to make any [trouble],” said Koul Panha, executive director of election watchdog Comfrel. “It’s a really big problem.”
In a statement released yesterday, Amnesty International and three other international human rights groups said the ruling party’s domination of Cambodian media has allowed them to maintain a public image more favourable than opponents.
“Most media in Cambodia are either controlled by the government or exercise self-censorship, generally providing only limited or unfavourable coverage about the opposition parties,” the statement says.
The same statement also brought up voters’ increasing ability to voice their political views through social media, even though the National Election Committee issued a request that social media users “not provide wrong information about the election”.
While Khmer newspapers remain a key source of information for literate citizens across the Kingdom, social media sites such as Facebook are beginning to emerge as new venues where voters can form their opinions, said Cedric Jancloes, a former media adviser to the UNDP-produced Equity Weekly news show, which was kicked off state-run television after reporting on sensitive issues earlier this year.
“For people who have access to technology, I think people today are much more reliant on their iPhones and iPads and computers to get their information,” Jancloes said. “It’s a new ballgame.”
But at newsstands on Street 51 near Wat Lanka yesterday, shop owners said the lack of coverage of Rainsy’s return upset their customers.
“They complain, ‘Why doesn’t [the newspaper] say anything about it?’” said Chen, a seller at newsstand and bookshop Re Jean, who gave only his first name. “Most people are very interested in Sam Rainsy coming back to Cambodia.”
He added that a substantial amount of his customers wanted to purchase Rainsy’s new autobiography, Rooted in Stone, but the book is only available in English and French.
Dining outside his newsstand with three other men, Chen Rithy, 30, said people also came by asking for news on Rainsy’s return, but only foreign-run papers covered this.
The ruling party’s use of media is reminiscent of the past, when kings would appoint high priests and monks to “domesticate” the public, Mong Hay said.
Information printed in Khmer-language newspapers may not reflect the most important news of the day, he said, but it serves a purpose.
“Look at the journalists serving [the Khmer media], their expertise is to educate people to support the ruling party,” Mong Hay said. “They don’t have any individual integrity.”