Critics take aim at MTV's EXIT campaign, claiming it unwittingly bolsters new anti-trafficking laws that they say have resulted in the victimisation of Cambodian sex workers
An excited crowd enjoys one of the performances at the MTV EXIT concern in Siem Reap in December. Extracts from the concert were broadcast nationwide Saturday.
MTV's campaign focused on trafficking
MTV's EXIT Foundation campaign "to raise awareness and increase prevention of human trafficking across Asia Pacific" kicked off last year with a highly publicised documentary, Traffic, which included the personal stories of victims of human smuggling, traffickers and the police who track them. The show was produced in more than a dozen Southeast Asian languages, while the flagship English version was narrated by Hollywood star Lucy Liu. Cambodia's leading pop star Preap Sovath narrated the version broadcast in Cambodia. Girls anxious for higher-paying jobs abroad are duped into sex work, the show explained. It also highlighted the practice of debt bondage.
ON Saturday, the newest instalment of MTV's anti-trafficking campaign was broadcast in Khmer language on Bayon TV. Clips from a concert series last year were interspersed with sound bites from local luminaries of the hip-hop scene, including singer Phou Khlaing, who introduced the TV event as part of "a campaign about freedom - about our rights as human beings to choose where we live, where we work, who our friends are and who we love".
Yet while the MTV EXIT Foundation (MTVEF), a branch of the popular US-based music channel dealing with social issues, intended with the recent broadcast and its series of concerts last year to use its name to support awareness among youth about the risks of human trafficking, it also stepped into the deep end of a simmering controversy including the Cambodian and US governments, rights groups and sex workers about the right way to treat prostitution.
The problem, some rights groups say, is that THE MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking) campaign is inadvertently throwing itself behind a recent law that removes from Cambodians the right to engage in prostitution and has allowed police to brutalise sex workers with impunity.
In 2008, the government launched a controversial law that outlawed prostitution and classified all sex workers as victims of trafficking. Under the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, offering one's sexual services for money became illegal for the first time. In the past, only pimping and procurement could be prosecuted.
The law, according to Cheryl Overs of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) conflates prostitution and trafficking by "[assuming] that sex work is inherently degrading and therefore, you cannot consent to it ... so all sex workers become victims of trafficking".
In the months following the law's implementation, police carried out a series of raids on brothels and street-based prostitution that critics said gave police free rein to rape and rob sex workers. They say the law has done little more than drive prostitution deeper underground - making sex workers more vulnerable to trafficking and pushing them further away from the public health groups that have been instrumental in curbing the country's HIV/AIDS rates.
The MTV EXIT campaign "only highlights the issue of sex slavery", said Ly Pisey, a spokesman for the Women's Network for Unity, a collective of Phnom Penh-based sex workers.
MTV should have consulted first with sex workers and sex worker groups.
"We must respect the right of women to be sex workers if that is how they chose to support themselves.
"We support having legislation against trafficking, but the current law has led to the rape and arrest of sex workers," she added. "MTV should have consulted first with sex workers and sex worker groups."
The campaign, critics like Ly Pisey say, will be seen by audiences as reinforcing the government's anti-human trafficking agenda.
The problem is already compounded by US support for the legislation, modelled after its own anti-trafficking laws. Rights groups say the legislation was only passed in Cambodia in a misguided attempt to meet anti-trafficking standards imposed by the US State Department that are a prerequisite for receiving US aid funds.
"The US government has ignored what has happened. Now, it seems MTV is doing the same," said Ly Pisey.
Andrew Hunter, who works with the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers in Bangkok, blamed MTVEF for failing to tailor its campaign to the Cambodian context.
"By going into Cambodia with no understanding of the desperate situation on the ground ... campaigns like this can whip up a frenzy of anti-sex work sentiment in an already oppressive environment," he said.
No support for law
For its part, MTVEF has tried to elide the debate, arguing that its message is solid and that it would risk dragging itself into local politics were it to tailor its message around the conflicting opinions of groups in each country it works in.
"MTVEF is fully aware of the recent anti-trafficking law passed by the Cambodian government," the group said in a statement to the Post.
"MTVEF through the MTV EXIT campaign has never promoted this or any other anti-trafficking law, since we are a non-political educational campaign.... However, MTVEF is also not responsible for the laws of any government."
It also said it was logistically impossible to expand its message. "MTVEF understands that human trafficking is a complex issue. Subsequently we cannot and do not profess to include every single facet of the issue within our programming," MTVEF said.
The group also denied that its message was prescribed by US policy since it receives funding from the US government. MTVEF said it "retains editorial control of all of its programming and does not necessarily share the opinion of its donors".
The US embassy in Phnom Penh would not specifically address criticisms of its support for the anti-trafficking law. In an email from spokesman John Johnson, it would only say: "Improving understanding and cooperation on anti-trafficking issues continues to be a high priority in the relationship between Cambodia and the US".
"To that end, the United States has supported the MTV EXIT campaign, which helped to raise awareness about the dangers of trafficking with thousands of Cambodians through live concerns and TV broadcasts."
Not a free choice
But Lin Sylor, who works with local anti-trafficking NGO Afesip, disagreed with the premise of those who have criticised MTV.
"People don't choose to be prostitutes," she said. "Poverty - often pressure within poor families - makes them do it."
Removing the industry prevents people from being pushed into it, she said.
Lim Tith, with UNIAP, a United Nations project on Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia that worked closely with MTVEF on the campaign, acknowledged police abuse carried out in the name of the law, but said MTV should not be blamed for police malfeasance.
"The campaign is about raising awareness - telling people how to help," he said. "The issue of abuse against sex workers is a different issue.
This does need to be discussed with policymakers."
Such explanations have done little to assuage critics, one wing of which formed an informal group, MTV No EXIT, appropriating the group's slogan.
Sara Bradford, who works with APNSW in Phnom Penh and started the informal movement, wrote in a December comment piece in the Post that "for MTV, a network with one of the largest audiences globally, to spotlight such a huge subject and only provide selective information on the issue is the ultimate insult to its viewers."
She told the Post by phone: "Audiences don't realise what they are indirectly supporting - the conflation of sex work and trafficking - which lessens the focus on people who have actually been trafficked."