A new report on the challenges faced by independent media in Cambodia in 2016 highlights a pervasive atmosphere of pressure on journalists to give favourable coverage to the government and ruling party allies, and concerns among the media – ultimately vindicated – about a possible pre-election crackdown.
The report, which interviewed 22 journalists last year and was published by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) last month, noted that “although there were no physical attacks or lawsuits against journalists in 2016, media outlets operated in an environment that often placed intense pressure to report favourably on the government and their allies in the business community”.
“With the country facing deep uncertainty over the national election in July 2018, there was widespread concern among journalists as to whether a government that has been surprisingly tolerant of highly critical media outlets would shift its position and expand its campaign against critics into the media arena,” the report says.
True to the report’s predictions, in the past month Cambodia has faced an unprecedented crackdown on independent media, with the shuttering of the Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia and more than a dozen independent radio stations.
The “growth in pro-government outlets was pulling talented journalists away from more independent competitors”, the report said. Just last week government mouthpiece Fresh News began a new radio service and the Interior Ministry launched Nice TV, funded by Chinese backers, bulking up the Kingdom’s pro-government coverage.
“The extent of government control and influence over the media was the second-greatest challenge to independent media behind only low pay,” the report found, with poor wages, in a culture of corruption, sometimes leading to unethical behaviour by journalists.
But Huy Vannak, director of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia and an undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry, said the recent closures were not linked to politics. “I don’t see much pressure . . . There is a confused message that RFA and the Daily were closed by the government, but they closed by themselves,” Vannak said. The Daily folded after it was handed a $6.3 million tax bill and was denied an appeal. RFA closed a week later, citing a government crackdown on independent media.
“It hurts now for some media institutions, but I think it’s good for others to be aware . . . and make sure you perform by the law,” Vannak said.
“If you don’t make mistakes, no one has the power to shut you down,” he said, saying journalists could trust the courts – contrary to the report’s findings.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said while lawsuits were preferable to the murder of journalists that occurred in the 1990s the legal process is indeed problematic.
“If a case is brought by powerful people, there is a slim opportunity that the court will be independent or rule in favour of the journalist,” he said.
He said it was “a sad thing” to lose a pluralism of voices, but hoped there would be “light at the end of the tunnel”.
“The government will need some legitimacy, so they will try to prove that democracy [exists] with free press and free expression,” he said.
The rise of social media, he added, meant there could not be a total blackout on sensitive stories.
“We have a Khmer saying that goes: You cannot use a flat basket to hide a dead elephant.”