Some 40 senior members of the news media from Cambodia and throughout Asia, along
with a dozen German counterparts and numerous government officials, including Prime
Minister Hun Sen, gathered in Phnom Penh this week for the Third Asian-German Editors'
Forum, organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The topic for discussion - the
Kingdom of Cambodia and the state of its media, economy and society. David Venables
attended the forum and found that everyone, foreign and domestic, faced a steep learning
When foreign and Cambodian journalists sat down to discuss their impressions of the
country this week, they, perhaps not surprisingly, adopted different approaches.
A panel of four senior editors from around Asia spent much of its time asking whether
Cambodia's international image was defined solely by the Killing Fields of the Pol
Pot time. Three of their counterparts from this country, asked to evaluate the Cambodian
media, made scant reference to the genocidal past, focusing instead on the need to
produce a more professional and better trained press.
Juergen Kremb, Singapore bureau chief for Europe's largest news weekly, Der Spiegel,
asked for his impression of Cambodia, encapsulated the foreign view as he described
a trip to a Singapore bookstore. Trying to read about the kingdom, all he found were
books on genocide. Mind you, Germany still suffers from the same problem - all the
books in that section of the shop were about Hitler's Third Reich.
Kremb took the view that a country had to deal with its past by talking about it
and Cambodia was no exception. He noted that Germany had still not put the Nazi years
Editor and publisher of Today, in The Philippines, Teodoro Locsin Jr felt the movie
version of The Killing Fields had gone a long way to defining Cambodia. "The
movie was so effective [in] creating an image that there is no Cambodia." He
regretted that the Vietnamese Army had not solved the problem by simply wiping out
the entire Khmer Rouge leadership in 1979.
The Asian panel was divided over whether Khmers should simply forget the past and
move on or expend energy in trying to come to terms with the Khmer Rouge years.
One Khmer questioner, Heng Monychenda, of Buddhism for Development, implored the
foreign editors to remember the positives.
"What is forgotten is the success of all individual Cambodians ... sending their
children to school."
The Asian media panel's Thai representative also addressed the Killing Fields and
his country's rarely publicized role in prolonging Cambodia's agony through the 1980s,
but additionally offered a wider insight into the relationship between the southeast
Sutichai Sae-Yoon, editor-in-chief of The Nation Group in Bangkok, recalled Thailand's
historical "obsession" with border security, but felt this was changing
as more countries invested in the Khmer kingdom.
Thailand had historically viewed itself as the "gateway to Indochina" and
had seen Cambodia as a way to make money. With other countries, such as Singapore
and Malaysia, putting money into Cambodia, Thailand was now losing its influence.
Thailand had opposed Cambodia's entry into Asean last year because it feared "the
loss of a weak neighbor to the big group. [Now it was] going to have to share this
pie with eight other member nations," Sutichai said.
He suggested King Sihanouk should pay an official visit to the Thai kingdom.
The four panelists of the Cambodian media forum held the next day focused on contemporary
problems much closer to home. They were blunt about it, too.
Associated Press journalist in Phnom Penh Ker Munthit said while the local media
did not want for quantity (some 140 newspapers and 37 magazines plus radio and television),
quality was highly suspect.
"Except for a few newspapers that live up to the professional standards, a lot
of media have failed [to deliver]...Bad examples abound and happen every day."
Poorly-paid reporters blackmailed people into paying to keep bad stories out of the
press, while broadcasters had simply ignored the death of Pol Pot in 1998, Munthit
Raksmei Kampuchea editor-in-chief Pen Samitthy noted how the media had undermined
their own credibility by becoming politicized during the 1998 elections. Overseas
aid donors had backed off from helping the media and newspapers went bankrupt.
Phnom Penh Post publisher Michael Hayes said that after painful years that had seen
journalists killed and newspapers terrorized there was now a certain peace, albeit
a "peace without justice."
Ironically, he felt Cambodia now had one of the freest presses in Asia.
Asked to rate the effectiveness of the Cambodian media in shaping the national agenda,
all four members of the panel, which included Minister of Information Lu Lay Sreng,
opted for a low two or three on a scale of one to nine.
The minister noted that even the country's largest paper, Raksmei Kampuchea, sold
only between 15,000 and 20,000 copies each day.
"The influence to convey good or bad news to the country is still very small."
Lu Lay Sreng saw the media as having more power than himself, though.
"As Minister of Information in this country it is very difficult...I am not
powerful as they can transfer me anywhere."
Panelists were agreed that better training was crucial to improving the performance
of the Cambodian media.
Ker Munthit, who had taught classes of would-be reporters at Royal Phnom Penh University,
said a common problem that hampered current students was poor education. He had ended
up simply teaching some students how to write in Khmer.
Journalism educators also needed training before they could do their job properly,
Lu Lay Sreng's suggestion that minimum standards for journalists be considered had
more than a few participants worried as it smacked of increased press regulation.
Hayes suggested rather than requiring educational standards of journalism wannabes,
the media should look to educate existing and new reporters through on-the-job training.
Khmer reporters could do six-month stints at other Asian papers, with perhaps a competitive
selection for places so that all media could benefit.
Panel chairman Thomas Stehling, director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation's Asian
Media Project in Manila, remarked how pleasing it was to be able to sit down with
a Minister of Information and not have to convince him of the virtues of press freedom.
Earlier, in his opening speech for the forum on Jan 31, Stehling had argued that
foreign investors paid attention to whether target countries had free media.
"Globalization of markets demands accurate and reliable information. Experience
from the past year indicates that the necessary commercial investment from foreign
countries is directed to Asian economies within countries that enjoy a free press...The
economic and financial crisis of the past was as well the crisis of confidence in
some political systems."
Pre-empting the Cambodian journalists' concerns about the need for more training
for reporters, Stehling listed low skill levels as one of the threats to press freedom,
along with corporate takeovers, bad management, protective political elites and politically
"Press freedom is also endangered by journalists who have not learnt their craft
and are not trained well enough, by journalists who are corrupt and give favors for
money. Journalists who give themselves more importance than the interests of their
readers endanger press freedom."
Prime Minister Hun Sen told the editors' forum that peace and national reconciliation
went hand-in-hand with achieving justice, in this case trying Khmer Rouge leaders.
The government wished to focus on the nation's economy, but would also not abandon
human rights, democracy and freedom.
"I have a precise understanding that only if we continue to strengthen the rule
of law, the justice system, social democracy, pluralism, human rights, etc would
we then be able to firmly expand the economic process."
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy later gave delegates a very different picture of Cambodia's
The ex-Funcinpec founding member and former Minister of Finance lamented the low
salaries of state employees and drew attention to unemployment and the country's
High among Cambodia's problems was the effective absence of the rule of law, which
was discouraging expatriates from coming home. He also highlighted the budget's focus
on military rather than social spending.
Cambodia's annual growth in GDP also had a downside. Logging made money in the short
term, but only for some people and it was destroying forests and damaging agriculture.
Prostitution also made money, but destroyed the "social fabric" and helped
the "explosion of AIDS." Garment manufacturing was fine, but it was dangerous
to base such a huge proportion of exports on one industry.
Sam Rainsy also took a swipe at tourism, suggesting that "mass tourism"
could damage the temples in the Angkor Wat area.
He light-heartedly defended his strong new year's message as a wake-up call for his
fellow Cambodians. "I thought that for the year 2000 I had to make something
a little bit strong for the people...I can tell you I will do it only once in every
The editors' forum, which ran from Jan 31 - Feb 1 in Phnom Penh, continued in Siem
Reap on Feb 2. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation was also due to hold a workshop for
Cambodian journalists in the capital yesterday and today.