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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Easing past the rules, debate being televised

Easing past the rules, debate being televised

BATTAMBANG - The Royal Government is still trying to keep television services under

tight control, mainly by bureaucratic means. But there are ways of getting around

the bureaucrats to get your voice heard, as some human rights organizations have


They are raising controversial issues of public concern through debate and educational


In a restaurant in Battambang, the television blares a fictional story featuring

Khmer Rouge soldiers in red kramas terrorizing a village. Just thirty kilometers

or so away the Khmer Rouge have been fighting for years - for real.

Everyone knows what is going on, but showing the fighting on television is not allowed,

said Samrang, a photographer from the local state-owned television station.

On the same day, the station produced a sequence about the repair of a bombed bridge

and a damaged road. The piece was ordered screened by the Ministry of Planning in

Phnom Penh, to demonstrate how the authorities are dealing with the problems in the


The station's equipment is limited: a television, a VCR, a radio and an old Russian

generator. It can only produce 10 watts of power, so the sound is hit or miss.

The station broadcasts four hours every evening. A short news bulletin is followed

by an hour's mixed news from Phnom Penh, news taped from the BBC - without payment

- news from Russia, and local news. Five videos are brought by taxi once a week from

Phnom Penh.

One of the programs brought from the capital is a quiz from military headquarters,

in which two military teams dressed in their finest, sit opposite each other competing

to give the right answers to military questions.

Manuscripts and program notes at Battambang TV are handwritten, and controlled by

the local information service. The director, E Sarom, stops programs if he thinks

they will upset people. One such program was about a monk who had sex with a woman.

Sarom reasoned that people would lose respect for the monkhood if they watched it.

There are about 270,000 people in Battambang, and the potential TV audience is estimated

at 100,000. The information service guesses there are around 11,000 TV sets, and

often five families gather around one set in the rural areas.

WHILE Battambang station functions with minimal interference from the local branch

of the Ministry of Information, a very close eye is kept on the national TV station,

TVK, in Phnom Penh. Although press freedom and media pluralism is officially recognized

as basic to the new democracy, the government tries to keep television in particular

on a leash.

TVK's news director Kem Gunawadh says TVK could never broadcast items on corruption.

"The time is not right yet for this sort of issue. Cambodia has a new government,

we have only just put the war behind us, we have to understand the situation in the

country. We must consolidate national and social stability, reconstruction and the

political stability of the country."

TVK broadcasts 20 per cent news, 50 per cent educational material, 20 per cent entertainment

and 10 per cent children's programs. Gunawadh says the station also produces documentaries,

but the most recent are five or six years old. TVK hasn't been able to afford to

produce anything since then.

TVK is supported by the Cambodian People's Party, the CPP. TV9 is supported by Funcinpec;

TV5 is run by the army and private Thai interests; and there is also a new private

channel called Apsara.

Some program-makers have been able to get around the problem of censorship. A relative

novelty is television debate programs. Never before have attempts been made to create

a television "public sphere," in which experts and citizens can discuss

the government's visions and initiatives.

It is not journalists but local human rights organizations that are responsible for

the most important programs on TVK. One - "The Public Opinion" - is produced

by the Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID).

Twenty debates were planned for this year, but a lot of problems arose when the format

was introduced. One program on corruption featuring dissident politician Sam Rainsy

was canned.

However, since programs can usually be screened, how is it that television is the

most censored media in Cambodia? KID director Lao Mong Hay says: "Our programs

do not deal with people, but with principles. We are very conscious about that. We

criticize political programs. We said, for instance, that Sam Rainsy's expulsion

from the government was anti-constitutional. The government cannot do anything against

us, when we argue on the basis of law."

Mong Hay also took part in a contest for authors, organized by The Cambodian Institute

for Human Rights. He interviewed authors on subjects specified in advance by the

government, on issues such as reconciliation, and reconstruction.

"But," he says, "the government could not prevent me from asking questions

in my own way. The Russian author Solzenitsyn once said: 'If you have one good author

in your country, the country has two governments.' I asked the authors if they agreed

with this statement. They did and answered: 'We can help the government by raising

social issues, by writing about the everyday lives of people'."

Another time, the Ministry of Justice was invited to take part. Mong Hay asked Minister

Chem Sgnuon when the Constitutional Council was due to start work.

"He said that progress had been made, but that it depended on certain factors

due for discussion by the Council of Ministers. Then I asked him: 'Do the ministers

take notice of your advice?' He didn't answer. But okay, it is a free country. You

can ask questions, but you are also free not to answer," Mong Hay said.

Critical local journalists argue that the debate programs have little to do with

real discussion. They say Khmer people are not used to tackling conflicts and asking

questions. Besides, they are shy. And government officials just avoid answering if

they don't want to. Consequently, the programs get rather boring. However, even these

criticisms stress the importance of the fact that questions are being asked at all.

Visuth Um, of the Cambodian Human Rights Institute, produces a weekly educational


One actually focused on corruption. Visuth said the issue was approached indirectly.

The producers asked a Khmer-American economist to paint a picture of what Cambodia

would look like with a clean economy.

"In this way we tell people what they already know, that corruption is going

on. But at the same time we look at strategies that could create a sound economy.

This gives people the idea that things could be different, and that there are some

things worth fighting for."

The reasons why such programs can be aired at all, according to Visuth, is because

there are not enough employees at the Ministry of Information to check all programs,

and partly because certain people within the Ministry want to promote debate, as

long as it's not too confrontational.

Visuth continues: "The important thing is to present messages in a way that

is not too much at variance with official regulations. The main aim of the national

channels is reconciliation. The message is non-violence. The means it is a cocktail

of Buddhist lifestyle, human rights and censorship."

(Karin Bo Bergquist is a Danish journalist and student of communications at the Roskilde

University, Copenhagen.)



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