Since UNTAC began its mission in mid-March last year, its Information and Education
unit has closely monitored the rapid emergence of a private, if not entirely independent,
Cambodian media. As UNTAC prepares to pull out, the plethora of new newspapers and
television stations find themselves in a delicate position; striving to win readers
with bolder stories but aware that the new authorities are beginning to exert pressure
to rein them in. The following report is an overview of the situation by the Information/
Education unit in the wake of May's election.
Toward the end of 1992, at the time that the UNTAC Information Division initially
attempted to create a media association, the most conspicuous obstacle to its formation
was the fact that there was little that could be called an "independent"
media: what media outlets existed were situated firmly within the administrative
frameworks of one or another political party or faction-which, despite the Paris
Agreements, remained hostile to one another-and there was not even sufficient neutral
ground for an association to elect officers; individual members of the media, however
much at one level they might "want" to, could not sufficiently forget the
political networks they were bound to work together for common goals as journalists.
The media in Phnom Penh at this time was dominated by the State of Cambodia media
organs of press, radio, and television. Political divisions still to some extent
followed geographical lines: KPNLF, and the Partie of Democratic Kampuchea had radio
facilities broadcasting from Thailand or near the Thai border, and FUNCINPEC had
a bulletin published on the border (aimed in part at overseas supporters). The different
parties were only beginning to publish bulletins in Phnom Penh (although the oldest
of these, the KPNLF Weekly Bulletin, had been coming out since the previous January).
The few publications that could be called independent still occupied a peripheral
position for the average Cambodian. Santepheap, which started around April, 1992,
is significant in that it does not have any overt formal ties to any state or political
organization-although its "independence" did not mean it was neutral. Rumored
to be receiving financial support from high-ranking CPP officials, it took a militantly
pro-SOC/CPP position-sometimes taking extreme stands which prominent SOC/CPP figures
supported but did not want to be linked to officially.
More truly economically independent were the two English language newspapers, the
Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Times, both for-profit institutions which started publication
in July 1992. Cambodia Times, a well-financed Malaysian venture, printed in Kuala
Lumpur and flown in to Phnom Penh, began publishing a Khmer-language edition in November,
1992. This Khmer-language edition, more sickly edited than the other Cambodian newspapers,
and using color photographs, attracted a lot of attention when it first started (although
this has waned as other newspapers have appeared on the horizon and the paper's pro-SOC
leaning became obvious). When the paper first started, it was in a position to offer
salaries which attracted journalists and computer staff away from other papers-to
the distress of their editors. The pattern that Cambodia Times set-of an internationally-financed
newspaper which was able to attract staff, readership, and advertisers-and which
turned out to be less neutral than it initially seemed-would be repeated again when
Reasmey Kampuchea came on the scene.
Three significant trends since the beginning of the year together help explain the
fact that by the time of the elections Cambodian media seemed to be playing a very
different ball game-1) the rise of a Phnom Penh media associated with political parties-in
particular, FUNCINPEC; 2) the growth of internationally financed media-in the form
of a new television station and a newspaper-both Thai financed; and 3) the proliferation
of small independent newspapers. These three tends relate to the same economic and
political developments in the country-the conversion to market economy and the establishment
of a multi-party political system, which were at least the stated goals of all the
political parties. The rise of an independent media was more a political phenomena
than it seemed at first blush-since the "independent" media (both small-scale
Cambodian ventures and internationally financed institutions) often had political
agendas or were allowed to exist because of agreements to tote a political line.
Most of the actual political party bulletins began publishing before the beginning
of the year; except, perhaps, for the KPNLF Weekly Bulletin, they tended to in effect
constitute campaign materials rather than journalism per se. They had limited circulation;
sometimes, even in the case of the FUNCINPEC bulletin,there were not enough copies
issued to distribute to all the party offices in the provinces. In practice the bulletins
tended not to be something that people sat and read in their homes but something
to be posted on bulletin boards outside of party offices. Nevertheless, the bulletins
had their impact on the more traditional field of the media as a symbolic statement
of the multiplicity of political voices now possible. Of all the parties in opposition
to the CPP it is perhaps only FUNCINPEC which can truly be said, by the time of the
elections, to have created a media network comparable in any way to that of State
of Cambodia-with the appearance, right before the election, of a newspaper and two
different youth bulletins (different in tone than the more cut and dry party bulletins.)
More importantly, there was at this time the creation, despite State of Cambodia
attempts to block them, of a FUNCINPEC FM radio station and TV station based in Phnom
Penh. Although these stations did not have the broadcasting range of the SOC media,
their existence made a powerful statement about FUNCINPEC's power and potential for
For many months, the KPNLF Weekly Bulletin was the only media outlet produced in
Phnom Penh which dared to take a stance directly oppositional to State of Cambodia/CPP.
For a period of time FUNCINPEC's attacks on State of Cambodia were largely limited
to its press releases (a branch of journalism in its own right); the actual media
organs of the party maintained a stance of detachment. As State of Cambodia attacks
on FUNCINPEC became increasingly acrimonious, however-in particularly focusing on
the allegation that FUNCINPEC was linked to the Khmer Rouge-the FUNCINPEC media began
responding in kind-sometimes in the form of letters to FUNCINPEC radio which were
read on the air. These counter attacks often focused on allegations, similar to the
ubiquitous attacks in Democratic Kampuchea radio broadcasts, that the Phnom Penh
government was the puppet of the Vietnamese.
Many of the opposition political parties had strong anti-Vietnamese tendencies and
to one extent or another espoused positions similar to the anti-Vietnamese stance
of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea broadcast regularly from the border; this evidences
itself early on in inflammatory articles in the KPNLF Weekly Bulletin-although they
were toned down after UNTAC objected to them. as the campaign progressed, some material
of this kind also appeared in the FUNCINPEC youth bulletin Samleng Yuvachon Khmaer.
The independent media which arose since the beginning of the year, both internationally
financed enterprises and small-scale Khmer ones, was less free from political pressure
than might ideally be the case. In conversation, Cambodians often complained that
new newspapers would start which seemed politically neutral, and then, after a few
issues, would always begin assuming inflexibly the State of Cambodia political line.
There seems to be some validity of this charge at least in the case of the largest
of the new newspapers, Koh Santepheap, Reasmey Kampuchea, and the Khmer version of
the Cambodia Times; and some of the other smaller newspapers may have modified their
editorial positions to some extent in response to pressures or bribes-although there
was certainly variation in their political position, and it is hard to distinguish
between what is a genuine political position and that produced by pressures. The
Thai-financed IBC TV, which began broadcasting during the campaign period, had a
clear pro-SOC position from the very beginning, leading some to conclude that this
stance was part of the agreement by which the station was allowed to open. Evidence
suggests that the Thai television firm specifically had links to the prominent CPP
figure Prince Norodom Chakrapong, who was often featured in their programming.
Even though the independent media may have been less politically neutral than ideally
would have been the case, its emergence nevertheless represented a real change in
the way the media worked. Although the State of Cambodia newspapers were available
for sale in Phnom Penh in a couple of government stores, they had over the years
primarily been distributed through government offices to state employees. The growth
of an independent print media in Phnom Penh corresponded to the amazing proliferation
of newsstands throughout the city-apparently similar to the large numbers of newsstands
which had existed prior to 1975-and the actual sale of the independent papers was
essential to their continued existence in a way that it had not been for with the
state organs of media for many years. Reports on crime (which had made the State
of Cambodia police newspaper Nokorbal Pracheachon so popular) and sensationalistic
love stories (occasionally semi-pornograpic) were standard fare in the new newspapers,
and may have had more to do in determining which newspapers sold well than their
political positions. Some of the new smaller newspapers assumed the names of newspapers
which had existed prior to 1975-underlining the notion that the new era represented
a return to the past.
Although some Cambodians complained that the political bias of the new newspapers
was no better than the bias that had come before, there was in fact a significant
difference simply in the fact that, because they were nominally independent, the
new newspapers could cover events involving a number of parties. This contrasted
with the situation as late as the end of 1992, when journalists associated with State
of Cambodia, on the one hand, and the opposition parties, on the other, were saying
they did not feel they could even enter the state or party offices of the opposing
faction to conduct interviews in the course of their journalistic work-for fear it
would be interpreted as political betrayal. Whatever the degree of bias of the new
independent newspapers, they had a certain freedom which allowed some kinds of news
to be covered which had not been covered before.
When the Thai-financed newspaper Reasmey Kampuchea began being published in April,
it had a strong impact on the print media. It was published daily, used color, had
a more sophisticated layout than other papers, and yet, as Cambodians often pointed
out, was being sold for the same price as other newspapers. The editor, Pen Samitthy,
one of the more talented Cambodian editors, came from Cambodian People's Party municipality
newspaper Phnom Penh. Reasmey Kampuchea was able to pay much higher salaries than
a government newspaper, and some of his staff at Phnom Penh, as well as experienced
journalists from a number of other papers, left their jobs to join the paper. Other
newspapers have complained that it was difficult to compete with the new newspaper.
The impact was particularly dramatic in the case of the State of Cambodia police
newspaper Nokorbal Pracheachon, which for many months had grown in popularity-because
it was the most politically daring of the State of Cambodia newspapers and because
as a police newspaper it was in a position to cover salacious crime stories which
attracted wide readership; circulation fell drastically when the new Reasmey Kampuchea,
less closely identified with the state began, covering the same themes on a daily
Although, like Koh Santepheap and the Khmer edition of Cambodia Times, Reasmey Kampuchea
was initially perceived as neutral, it took a strong pro-CPP stand during the election
campaign and after the elections it supported CPP allegations that the elections
were not fair. Although some Cambodians complained in conversation about the bias
of the paper, it continued to be widely read.
The arrival on the scene of Reasmey Kampuchea was similar to the arrival on the scene
of the Khmer edition of Cambodia Times; it was in a position to dominate the scene
because of the investment funds backing it from overseas-and technological advantages
it had in being printed overseas. At the present time, it seems likely that the impact
of Reasmey Kampuchea will be more far reaching than that of the Cambodia Times-because
it is a daily newspaper and because, with a Cambodian editor and Khmer sensibility,
it is perceived as more truly in tune with Cambodian tastes. It is not clear to what
extent it is really making a profit as of yet.
IBC-TV, also Thai-financed, has a greater broadcasting range than TV Kampuchea, and
has, like Reasmey Kampuchea, become very popular very quickly. Officials at TVK say
that there has been no problems of staff leaving to work for IBC TV, but they are
sensitive to the fact that the new television station has been able to attract kinds
of advertisers that it has not.
During the actual election all broadcast media, in accordance with electoral regulations,
refrained from political broadcasting, and in the wake of the elections the station
never returned to the pitch of acrimony reached during the campaign period.
All the political party bulletins which started in the period before the elections
have now stopped publication. In a newspaper interview with newly appointed Minister
of Information Khieu Kanharith, he stated that FUNCINPEC TV and radio could not continue
as the stations of a political party, but would have to become private stations.
The elimination of media outlets which are official party organs seems to represent
policy or a gentlemen's agreement among the parties. The CPP official party newspaper
Pracheachon is also becoming a private paper. (Officials have confirmed reports that
BLDP has brought equipment to Phnom Penh to create its own radio station; it is not
clear yet whether this will have to become private.)
The changes within the government following the election leave the State of Cambodia
media in a precarious position; their editorial stances have been extremely cautious
and neutral as they wait to see what the future holds for them (as perhaps is true
of the Cambodian media now more generally-it worth nothing that FUNCINPEC radio and
TV have also refrained from criticism of other parties.) State of Cambodia radio,
the government news agency, and the police newspaper, have all changed their names.
Phnom Penh newspaper has stopped publication-it could not really survive the loss
of its editor to Reasmey Kampuchea and its declining ability to pay its staff a living
wage. While the newspaper has officially only shut down temporarily, most outside
observers conclude the move is permanent. Khieu Kanharith told UNTAC information
representatives that the only remaining government newspaper would be Kampuchea.
Since Khieu Kanharith was closely associated with Kampuchea for many years, the fact
that he has been appointed Minister of Information will probably serve to strengthen
the newspaper-which has tended to be weak since he was removed as its editor in 1990.
Ominously, some newspapers-most conspicuously the new newspaper Utdam Kate Khmaer,
but also some newspapers previously associated with SOC/CPP, Koh Santepheap and Santepheap,
have begun taking a more clear anti-Vietnamese stance than would have been possible
before the elections.
UNTAC itself has been a player in the changes that have taken place in the media.
Information/Education Division radio and television programming came to assume a
quite important role to average Cambodian listeners and viewers as well as initiating
new types of programming which were imitated by other stations. The Information/Education
Control Unit also played a role, by an on going dialogue with the Cambodian media
in which it attempted topromote basic principles of press freedom and journalistic
It would be nice to think of the developments in the Cambodian media as representing
an opening up to the market economy which at the same time represents an opening
up to principles of the free press which UNTAC has promoted. The truth is probably
more complicated. An economic change has taken place which it is impossible to reverse.
In the short run, this seems to have produced a multiplicity of voices in the media-but
the survival of newspapers may be an issue. It will not be easy for small-scale Cambodian-financed
media to survive. There is certainly a risk right now that the traditions of Cambodian
journalism which have grown out of the socialist years may be being too facilily
discarded-instead of being used as a base for the creation of new institutions. There
is also the ongoing risk of government intervention. The editor of one of the larger
newspapers recently said in conversation that the provisional government was beginning
to press down on the press in ways which hadn't happened before; it remains to be
seen how harsh or widespread this kinds of pressure will be. Some of the freedom
of the press being enjoyed now can be lost as a new government consolidates its position
of power. Whatever future the Cambodian press builds for itself, it will be a slow
and complicated process.