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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Editors' squabbles making more noise than any grenade

Editors' squabbles making more noise than any grenade

N EWSPAPER publishers Nguon Nuon and Thong Uypang have much in common. Both are

veteran journalists and claim to have employed one another before. Both are

political - Noun is a Funcinpec member, and Uypang is widely seen as

pro-Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP). Long-time rivals, their public animosity

recently plummeted to new depths.

A Sept 5 headline of Uypang's Koh

Santepheap (Island of Peace) newspaper read: "Buddy Nuon is walking towards his

last breath".

The paper appealed: "Please don't let Island of Peace see

the monkey-looking face [of Nuon] in court again," a reference to government

prosecutions of Nuon.

The Sept 6 edition of Nuon's Damneung Pelpreuk

(Morning News) described Uypang's wife with offensive and unrepeatable

words.

The next day a grenade exploded outside Nuon's house.

Island of Peace blamed Nuon himself for the blast. The newspaper

insinuatingly complemented Nuon for "not having died yet", and for being "as

mighty as Soeun of the Earth" - referring to the nickname of a soldier accused

but acquitted of killing an Island of Peace correspondent.

A pale-looking

Nuon, the day after the grenade blast, tried to reassure visitors that he was

more upset at the disruption to his publication than the attack

itself.

"Had it not been for the attack, today's [Sept 8] edition could

have been noisier than the grenade explosion," he said.

Meanwhile, over

at Wat Phnom News and Samleng Polrath Khmer (Voice of Khmer Citizens), a similar

war of words was being waged.

The central piece of the public argument

appeared to be Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, constantly criticized by Wat Phnom

News publisher Meas Dararith and defended by Chea Song of Voice of Khmer

Citizens.

It culminated in a Sept 12, black-bordered photograph in Wat

Phnom News of Chea Song. The text rambled about Song pleading to hell for

pictures of Yuon (Vietnamese) prostitutes for his paper, suggesting hell might

send a casket for him instead and finished: "This is the first warning for the

old dog barking."

Such vitriolic and occasionally senseless abuse is by

no means limited to journalists attacking other journalists. A more favorite

target is the government.

A headline suggesting that one of the Prime

Ministers was "three times more stupid a day" than his co-Prime Minister earned

a Voice of Khmer News editor a 12-month jail sentence, currently under

appeal.

Khmer Ideal newspaper publisher Thun Bunly recently had his paper

ordered closed for a series of articles which, among other things, described one

of the Prime Ministers' faces as being "thicker than a blade of an

ax."

There is an abundance of other, more abusive examples in the Khmer

press.

While journalists defend their right to freedom of expression -

and human rights groups being strongly critical of government action against

journalists - there is no doubt the press is doing itself no

favors.

"What we are seeing is that the free press is being killed or is

committing suicide because of journalists' irresponsibility," said a Rasmei

Kampuchea journalist.

With more than 40 Khmer newspapers vying for

readership, many view sensationalism as their key to success, whether it be

printing pictures of dead bodies, pornography or editorial diatribes.

"Many say 'Oh, what's the point of respecting a code of ethics if sales

of my paper are going to be bad?'," said Khmer Journalists Association (KJA)

vice-president Tat Ly Hok.

Other journalists say that, as well as

sensationalism, newspapers are basically paid - either in money, protection, or

political favors - to pursue political agendas.

Tat Ly Hok conceded that

little has changed despite the training of hundreds of reporters in

foreign-funded courses. He argued that even if reporters know their jobs, their

editors and publishers often dictate what is published to suit their own

political affiliations.

"They [reporters] have got a good sense of the

five Ws and the H [who, what, when, where, why and how] but they are under the

influence of their publishers who are very politicized," says Hok, deputy editor

of the government-owned Kampuchea newspaper.

"Everybody tends to believe

what he thinks is right. It is very difficult to reach a consensus and in the

end the exercise of freedom turns into anarchy."

Chum Kanal, president of

the League of Cambodian Journalists (LCJ), said journalists were only alienating

readers. "For example, opinion articles are now piling up and people are tired

of them.

"We must review ourselves. I think the reason why we cannot

become the fourth [branch of] power is because we are not accountable for

it."

KJA Secretary-General So Naro agreed the public was being poorly

served. "It's OK to say the government treats journalists badly, but we must

also say that journalists treat the public badly too."

Naro said he

believed in the future of professional journalism in Cambodia, and said that the

government's new press law was necessary to do what journalistic training had

not. The law should not be aimed at restricting freedom of the press, he said,

but at "limiting negative impacts caused by journalists and encouraging

professionalism, responsibility, impartiality and social justice".

Many

foreign human rights observers and journalists worry that the Khmer press is

playing into the hands of those in the government who favor a tightly-controlled

press.

Some allege government interference - particularly with the

formation of the LCJ, a breakaway from the KJA - and an official reluctance to

prosecute those pro-government newspapers who appear just as bad as the

anti-government ones regularly prosecuted.

With three journalists killed

last year, and more than a dozen prosecutions, suspensions or closures of

newspapers in the past 12 months, the freedom of the press is at

stake.

Meantime, there seems to be no let up in sight for the

inter-newspaper squabbling which has become regular fare in the Khmer press.

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