Some Chinese newspapers on sale in Phnom Penh adhere to a strict directive from Beijing to report only good news.
T he top editors of Phnom Penh's three Chinese-language daily newspapers have told the Post that, although they enjoy considerable freedom of expression, they face a strict directive from the Chinese government to report only good news.
For Western-trained journalists such openly biased reporting is a staggering confession. According to Cambodia's Chinese press corps, however, such policy is not only business as usual but exactly what their readers want.
"We support the Chinese government," said Liu Xiaoguang, editor-in-chief of The Commercial News (TCN), which has a circulation of 2,000. "Old Cambodian Chinese like our paper because we follow the rules of reporting news. For example our standpoint is similar to that of the Chinese government and we won't report negative things.
"Many Cambodian Chinese are pro-Beijing, so they like reading our paper. We report Chinese-friendly news, so being completely neutral is impossible."
The coming Khmer Rouge Trial wouldn't be of interest to Chinese readers, Chinese editors and reporters said.
"The Khmer Rouge Trial is not a big story for the Chinese papers as Chinese people here are usually businessmen and focus on business news," said Ung Hong, a reporter for TCN. "Some of them are investors from China; the Khmer Rouge has nothing to do with them.
"We will still report this event, but won't do an in-depth story."
Jian Hua Daily (JHD) acting editor-in-chief Liu Jianbing says that although older Cambodian Chinese may be interested in the KR trial, overseas Chinese investors are not.
"Cambodian Chinese, the middle class, were badly hurt during the Khmer Rouge period, but they don't want to find someone who is accountable for the tragedy and punish them any more," he said. "The Khmer Rouge trial is still a big story for the Cambodian Chinese, but not the Chinese investors."
Officials from the Beijing-sponsored Xin Hua News Agency said it, too, plans to downplay Khmer Rouge coverage.
"The Khmer Rouge leaders are too old to be interviewed, but some people in the world are still interested in this story," said Lei Bosong, chief correspondent of the Phnom Penh bureau.
Xin Hua is owned by the Chinese government, but works independently from the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, Lei said. The bureau, established in the 1960s, was closed several times during periods of warfare and resumed daily service in 1991. It employs two or three reporters from China, and local Khmer reporters are hired part time when necessary, Lei said.
"The agency doesn't just report political events; we [cover] news as long as our readers would be interested in it," Lei said. "Our readers are worldwide too. We send one Chinese version and one English version back to the head office in Beijing."
The editorial philosophy of JHD, founded in 2000 by the Association of Chinese in Cambodia, is in synch with the policies of the Cambodian government, said the JHD's Liu.
"The paper aims at unifying Chinese people worldwide," he said. "We do not want to see Tibet and Taiwan independent. We report both positive and negative news, but we will put negative news at the bottom corner. For example, the July 1 march in Hong Kong became the headline news, but we put the government's comment at the top and people's demand for universal suffrage at the bottom."
The start-up capital for JHD was raised from Chinese living in Cambodia, Liu said. All residents with Chinese ancestry could buy shares in the paper. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised. JHD offers a 20 percent discount to students who subscribe to the paper and publishes students' compositions to stimulate their interest in Chinese language and spread Chinese culture, he said.
Liu said the paper publishes 5,000 copies; some of which are given free to related organizations and to students. He said sales increased when the US started the war against Iraq.
"Our front page is usually positive news, to give the feeling that Chinese people are great," Liu said. "Race, being Chinese, is more important than politics. I remember that we reported the news about June 4 [Tianamen Square democracy protests in 1989 in which thousands were estimated to have been killed], but we changed 'June 4 riot' into 'June 4 feng bo' [a Mandarin Chinese axiom that means "bigger than the wind but smaller than a storm"] to minimize the negative effects."
Owned by Chinese-Cambodian businessman Fang Qiao, JHD concentrates on business news and its directors claim it is helping Cambodia to develop its economy.
"Cambodia gives foreigners an impression that it is a far from advanced society," the JHD's Liu said. "But now the business opportunities here are unlimited. So we hope the people in China understand this and come here to invest after reading our paper. Besides, we also report China's management and development experiences to teach the people here how to start and run their own business. Cambodia needs business news."
Loh Swee-ping, director of the Malaysian-owned Chinese-language Cambodia Sin Chew Daily (CSCD), says his paper can report whatever it deems newsworthy. Still, Loh admits to more than a few run-ins with the Chinese Embassy.
"The freedom of expression here is better than that in Malaysia and Singapore," Loh said. "We can criticize the government and any political parties. But the Chinese Embassy has accused us of being pro-Taiwan and asked us not to report negative news. Now, we use Taiwan 'leader' rather than Taiwan 'president' to describe Chen Shuibian. But in fact, we are neither pro-Taiwan nor pro-Beijing."
Founded in 2000, the CSCD has a circulation of between 4,000 and 4,500 and Loh says it is the most widely circulated Chinese daily in Cambodia.
On another occasion the Chinese Embassy complained to the Ministry of Information after CSCD published an article about a Chinese general who sought political asylum in Australia.
"The Ministry of Information just asked us to explain; they did not punish us," she said. "We insist on reporting what is newsworthy, no matter if it is negative or not."
Despite different political bents, all the local Chinese papers share the same ambition: to help Chinese living in Cambodia to understand their environment.
"Many Chinese investors do not understand Khmer but they want to know the situation in Cambodia," Loh said. "Also, there are neither Chinese radio nor TV channels, so there is a market for us."
Loh said stories about scandal and corruption boost sales, but reporting official statements cause them to go down. CSCD emphasizes education stories behind business and commercial news. Foreign exchange and tourism are also popular topics.
"Chinese investors are interested in business, and Cambodian-born Chinese are concerned about their children's education," he said. "Social issues are not our focus. Not reporting something does not mean that others do not know of its existence."