AS opposition publisher Hang Chakra prepares to resume publication of his newspaper next week, observers say he faces a media environment in which the place of opposition outlets has, if anything, grown more precarious during his time behind bars.
The publisher of the opposition-aligned Khmer Machas Srok newspaper received a Royal pardon earlier this month and was released last week from Prey Sar prison, where since June he had been serving a one-year sentence for disinformation. He had been charged under the UNTAC criminal code in connection with a series of articles that accused officials working under Deputy Prime Minister Sok An of corruption.
Though Hang Chakra has vowed to resume printing articles critical of government corruption once his paper is back up and running, other publishers say the stifling of pro-opposition media figures is on ongoing trend that is unlikely to be reversed in the near future.
“Right now, we have only three [opposition-aligned] newspapers, but in 1993, we had around 10 newspapers,” said Hen Vipheak, publisher of the Sereypheap Thmey weekly newspaper, who was sentenced to one year in prison in 1995 for criticising the coalition government. He said that the risk inherent in his profession had driven away other would-be opposition journalists, citing Hang Chakra’s case as a particularly strong deterrent.
“Hang Chakra’s case is an example – we always think, ‘Who is the next to go to jail?’” he said. “This is our risk in having such a newspaper.”
Though editors in the capital have avoided prosecution in the past few months, cases against reporters in provincial courts have come regularly.
Radio Free Asia reporter Sok Serey was acquitted of disinformation charges by the Takeo provincial court in February, and Siem Reap provincial police filed a complaint against Koh Santepheap newspaper journalist Sim Samnang earlier this month, accusing him of disinformation and defamation. He is currently behind bars awaiting trial on unrelated extortion charges.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith emphasised the need for professionalism on the part of opposition media figures, saying that as long as they did not publish falsehoods, they had nothing to fear from the government.
“You have a lot of newspapers attacking the government, about everything, and no one goes to jail,” Khieu Kanharith said Monday.
Dam Sith, publisher of the Moneaksekar Khmer daily newspaper, said that although the opposition press had withered significantly over the years, it continued to fill the gaps in coverage produced by pro-government publications.
“We write about victims of land disputes, we write about corrupt officials and irregularities in society,” said the publisher, who resumed operations earlier this year after suspending publication last July under threat of defamation, disinformation and incitement charges filed by government lawyers.
An important element of the CPP’s media dominance is the vast financial power of its ruling elite, said Cambodian Centre for Human Rights president Ou Virak. Television broadcasting is expensive, and access is tightly controlled by the government, while the cost of newsprint and distribution is an obstacle for potential newspaper publishers, Ou Virak said. With Internet penetration still low, he cited radio as the most cost-effective medium for independent journalists to reach large numbers of Cambodians at the moment.
“The market is very small – not a lot of money to go around,” Ou Virak said, adding that the CPP’s “money machine” had helped establish a large number of pro-government outlets in a small market.
But, regardless of the challenges it faces, Hang Chakra said Monday that Khmer Machas Srok, which was forced to shut down earlier this month due to a financial shortfall, would soon resume its place in the public debate.
“I will still give constructive criticism to the government to improve my society,” Hang Chakra said. “The next issue will talk about corrupt government officials whom I have evidence against.”