The anonymous authors of KI-Media are forging an independent place in the political sphere.
ON September 16, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a press conference in which it attempted to dispel a report that Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Mu Sochua had participated in an “official” meeting in Washington with United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The US ambassador met with me yesterday and said that what was published on KI-Media was not true,” a secretary of state for the ministry, Ouch Borith, said. “It is an exaggeration and a lie.”
The meeting between Clinton and Mu Sochua did in fact take place, but debate continues over whether it was strictly official or not. Whatever one makes of this controversy, however, Ouch Borith’s comments signal the rising stature of KI-Media, an English-language news aggregation blog founded several years ago by a group of like-minded Cambodians who met on a series of Internet discussion forums.
Their first post appeared on July 27, 2005, featuring a controversial video interview with Chhay Vee, a man who claimed involvement in the 1997 grenade attack in front of the old National Assembly building that killed 16 people.
“Looking back,” wrote Socheata, one of the administrators of the site, “posting that video essentially defined one of our goals that we have maintained since: disseminating information that is not easily available through the traditional media, or that has been suppressed/banned/censored by the Phnom Penh regime”.
Like the other contributors interviewed, Socheata insisted on confining correspondence to email and requested that she be identified only by her Internet handle, citing concerns about “safety and security”.
In the four years since the Chhay Vee video, the KI-Media team has stepped up its output, culling from local and international news outlets to produce a mix of news articles, political cartoons and editorials that numbers in the double digits on a daily basis. For the week of September 14, Socheata said, the site tallied 73,400 page views from almost 32,000 unique users.
KI-Media’s dozen or so regular contributors include four Cambodian residents, with others in Europe, Australia and North America. Though Socheata said the site is “not aligned with any political party”, another contributor, Khmerization, acknowledged that it “tends to be opposition-oriented”.
This assessment is borne out by the blog’s design. Passages of articles that include condemnations of the government are often enlarged and printed in red font, and contributors do not hesitate to editorialise. “15% garment sector decline, double digits drop in air arrivals, construction slowdown, but… all is fine in Hun Xen’s Cambodia!” read the site’s heading for a press release from the International Monetary Fund posted last week, the premier’s name spelled Vietnamese-style, with an “X”, in a jibe at his ties with the neighbouring country.
KI-Media’s site, ki-media.blogspot.com, has garnered attention across Cambodia’s political spectrum. Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said that he checks it several times a day, and that many other members of government are also regular readers.
Despite their frequent attacks on the government, Khieu Kanharith said that those who post on the site need not fear government prosecution.
“People have the right to comment about whatever they want without fear of defamation or disinformation lawsuits,” the information minister said.
“But if journalists take comments from the blog and publish them in newspapers or on radio and TV to incite violence or defame someone, they will face a complaint.”
Others do not see the distinction between traditional news outlets and Web sites like KI-Media in such a cut-and-dried manner.
Soy Sopheap, publisher of the Deum Ampil newspaper, said he was one of many local and international journalists who regularly check KI-Media. He expressed frustration at the blog’s aggregating style, however, saying its contributors are siphoning revenue from professional journalists.
“I pay US$1,000 per month to my staff to report the news, and they steal from us,” he said. “It’s not fair to my media company.”
Heng Soy, another KI-Media blogger, dismissed this allegation. Though the site does post and translate articles from other news outlets, he said, this is done only with proper attribution to the original source. As for theft of revenue, Heng Soy noted that he and other contributors refuse paid advertisements “to avoid criticisms that we are trying to make a profit from this blog”.
Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media, agreed that KI-Media properly sources the news it takes from other outlets, and said that he supports online debate. He worried, however, about the anonymous Web site’s lack of accountability.
“If they want to continue with this kind of work, they should identify themselves,” he said. “They are a media outlet, and they need to show their professionalism.”
Though contributors exchange only limited personal information with one another, most, Socheata said, appear to be students. She and others noted several events on which KI-Media helped drive coverage by traditional outlets, including the 2005 arrest of Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha and the controversial “ilovethailand” Web site that drew the ire of the Cambodian government this July after claiming parts of Cambodia as lost Thai territory.
Rather than competing with the mainstream media, however, Socheata said the goal of KI-Media is simply to encourage dialogue on the part of its readers.
“What we would like to foster is a healthy political debate on all issues that affect Cambodians,” she said.