At first glance, Cambodian newspapers have the kind of freedom a Murdoch tabloid
editor could only dream of.
A reader scans the front page of one of Cambodia's many newspapers at a city newsstand.
The blatant political biases of publishers and editors make the front pages of the
Khmer press lurid canvasses where political opponents are painted in as degrading
terms as possible.
Truth is often incidental, hearsay is treated like fact while a push-pull dynamic
of extortion and bribes create or kill news stories as quickly as the opening of
With dozens of titles available, publishers are savvy to the fact that the most salacious
stories are the ones that sell, and reporters operating under self-mocking nom de
plumes such as "Agent 007" or "The Morning Star" can be counted
on to provide.
"Most [news] stories are based on rumors," says Cambodian Association for
the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) President Um Sarin. "Often [reporters]
don't go in the field. Sometimes they make a phone call, but other times they just
dream [stories] up."
In 1999 the tendency to "dream up" news stories led to a public health
scare when one newspaper claimed that all condoms in Cambodia had been tainted with
the AIDS virus by their manufacturers in Vietnam and Thailand. Government pressure
forced a retraction, but not before the story had entered the annals of Cambodian
Sarin places much of the blame for such poor quality journalism on inadequate training,
but says journalists are not solely responsible for the current state of the Cambodian
"The problem lies in all elements: the owner, publisher, editor, and the reporters,"
While Cambodia has around 120 newspaper titles registered with the Ministry of Information
(MOI) many of these rarely publish or are merely so-called "wishing papers",
newspapers that only publish for big occasions such as the King's birthday and contain
nothing but congratulatory messages.
More often than not newspapers support their publication by dubious means. Norbert
Klein, editor of The Mirror, an English-language translation of Khmer press extracts,
since its inception in 1997 is intimately familiar with the questionable nature of
many of the Kingdom's newspapers.
"Each week there are 10 to 20 newspapers [of the 30 publishing regularly] with
little or no advertising revenue," Klein said. "This to me shows that these
are not real newspapers -they are opinion papers or propaganda instruments."
Yet, with or without advertising revenue, virtually all Cambodian-language newspapers
wear their political sympathies on their sleeves. Rasmei Kampuchea and The Evening
News take a consistently pro-CPP stance while Khmer Conscience and Voice of Khmer
Youth have a pro-Sam Rainsy Party editorial line.
Khieu Kanharith, Secretary of State of the MOI, agrees that the Khmer press is riddled
with political bias, but argues that only the development of a sizable market will
change the situation.
"Some newspapers don't have any news at all - just their opinions," he
said, adding that a more independent press would come with economic development so
profitable newspapers could be "free from political and financial pressure".
Sarin says the real cost of the media's poor reputation is borne by the journalists
seeking to do credible, objective reporting.
"When [honest journalists] have a real story about corruption, the high ranking
officials just say 'don't believe it, it's only the Khmer press, take no notice',"
However, Klein says that over the past four years there has been evidence of rising
"It's visible that a certain training in basic journalistic skills is going
on," said Klein, citing the recent tendency to attribute names and dates to
Certainly the headline writers have toned down the rhetoric of a few years ago, when
newsstands were graced with papers screaming headlines such as "The King Changes
his Mind Like a Woman Changes her Panties" and "Minister of Justice PHD
isn't Worth Fly Shit".
Pressure from the MOI has also taken some of the blood off the front pages.
"The worst case I can remember was a front page color photograph of a naked
woman who had been cut in half" said Klein, noting the improving standards.
In spite of those gains, Cambodian newspapers are still notorious for using the public's
"right to know" as a convenient cloak for extortion.
'Licence to blackmail'
In March a Cambodian journalist with the Sihanoukville Evening News was arrested
after attempting to extort money from a nightclub owner involved in an assault case.
The journalist had allegedly demanded $150 in return for not publishing an incriminating
photograph of the nightclub owner.
Kanharith says that is a typical story. "They use their license and their press
card just to blackmail people," he said.
Hun Sen was typically more blunt last year when he talked about the caliber of the
Kingdom's journalists, saying that "...about 25% of Cambodian journalists are
working like kidnappers by demanding money from government officials, otherwise they
would report something bad about them".
Khieu Kola of the Club of Cambodian Journalists agrees, but says the government is
complicit in the corruption of journalists.
"...He [Hun Sen] needs to control the government [in offering bribes],"
Kola said. "Who makes the corruption, the reporters or the government?"
Sarin adds that many extortionists are in fact not real journalists but are operating
with fake press cards purchased from the MOI. Kanharith rejects this, claiming that
only editors give out false press cards.
A free press?
Article 41 of the Cambodian Constitution guarantees a free press and Klein argues
that "Cambodia has probably the [most free] press in South East Asia".
"I like this quote from [historian] David Chandler: 'In Cambodia there has never
been a distinction between a difference of opinion and treason'...[but now] while
you can't touch the King, you can read almost every week the 'the PM is a thief'
and so on," said Klein.
"I must say the government has increased their tolerance of the press recently,"
But Sarin worries that the Kingdom's journalists are merely enjoying the eye of the
political control storm.
"If you look quickly [the answer is] 'Yes the Khmer press is free', but if you
look more deeply then [the answer is] 'no'...when the politicians shake hands then
[political parties] don't need so much bias, but when there's conflict then things
may change" he said.
If the recent Democracy in Cambodia survey is any guide, political pressure and bribes
to newspapers may all be much ado about nothing. According to survey figures just
4% of voters read a newspaper every day - and 62% never read a newspaper at all.