The airwaves have been busy these past few months. During campaigning, the standard
TV diet of slapstick comedy and imported soap operas has been peppered with party
Prior to this year's vote, the news was a predictable affair. The TV and radio stations
dominated by the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) gave generous coverage to government
figures going about their daily business.
All that was set to change. The National Election Committee (NEC) drew up an ambitious
media access plan with the assistance of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Cedric
Jancloes, UNDP media coordinator, says during the 2002 commune elections CPP coverage
accounted for almost 90 percent of the news.
"[Our aim] was to establish a system where all parties had their say on TV,
equal access on TVK for the party's platforms," he says.
The plan centered on the three state-owned media outlets: television station TVK
and radio stations AM918 and FM96. A variety of regulations were drawn up to ensure
fair representation for all 22 competing parties.
But in reality, the regulations covered only a small proportion of the media. There
are 19 privately-owned television and radio stations, most aligned with the CPP.
When the regulations governing private media were found to have little legal basis,
radio stations took to slinging personal insults over the airwaves.
"It was uncontrollable," says NEC spokesman Leng Sochea. "Some party
leaders violated the law. They permitted airtime for party leaders to attacks each
other, [but] we are lacking the law on how to sanction them."
Despite problems with private media, the rules governing state-owned media were well-received
by some. A joint statement issued July 25 by election monitors Comfrel and Nicfec
states that both Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) were getting considerably
more news coverage than in 1998.
Roundtable debates were aired, and each party was allocated five minutes a day for
a promotional broadcast. Another aspect of the new regulations was the introduction
of 'equitable access': a 15 minute daily news slot that allocated party exposure
according to its share in previous elections. The CPP got 44 percent, Funcinpec had
27 percent, and the SRP 19 percent.
The remaining 10 percent was divided between the 19 smaller parties, a ruling that
annoyed many of them. They were dismayed at their small share, and made their feelings
felt at a press conference two days into the coverage.
The UNDP's Jancloes says that equitable access was chosen on the basis of public
interest: bigger parties simply had more to say, and needed the time to do so.
The SRP found the rule illogical.
"It is like a boxer," says the SRP's Keo Remy. "Just because I have
the belt and am the champion, it does not mean when you fight me I can be bare-fisted,
but you have to wear gloves."
The opposition eventually quit the program on July 7, but coverage continued and
the party said some of its concerns had been addressed. SRP spokesman Ung Bun Ang
still claims that TVK's coverage was biased towards the CPP.
But it was the private media regulations that attracted the most criticism. They
stated that stations selling airtime to one party must make time available for the
same price to all. In reality, most opted out.
"We didn't sell hours for party ads," says the head of CPP-affiliated Bayon
TV, Thai Novak Satia. "We left these hours [for] educating people about the
election. This was much more valuable than selling the time for those parties to
curse each other."
Jancloes concedes the private media's rejection of the regulations was a shame, but
insists the equal access program was an overall success: "What we were required
to do in the current circumstances was a big challenge, and we overcame that challenge."