K HMER TV's cozy relationship with the government was starkly exposed during the July 2 coup attempt. Executives at the Kingdom's three channels Television of Kampuchea (TVK), the International Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and Cambodia Television (CTV) imposed a three-day news blackout on the affair.
This was finally broken on July 5 during 7 pm news programs when a government statement was read out. None of the three channels showed any footage relating to the coup bid.
On the TVK program an anonymous and stern-faced news reader wearing a white shirt and tie read out the communique. There were no accompanying photographs and only the newscaster's upper body could be seen. TVK has four regular newscasters, two men and two women, but the station never publicizes their names.
The statement was signed by the co-prime ministers and delivered to the station via the security forces.
The purpose of the news release, the statement said, was to inform the armed forces and government officials of the "government's solution" and to instil confidence and calm.
It read: "Just recently, there was a group of persons led by Sin Song and Norodom Chakrapong, who committed an abortive coup attempt on July 2, 1994. This group misled armed forces in some places into complicity by using all means available including terrorism and falsehoods.
"The Royal Government would like to inform city and provincial governors, armed forces and military police that this act is a serious plot. The Royal Government would like to take the following measures:
- Condemn the ringleaders of the coup bid
- Armed forces who have been misled into complicity will be absolved and must keep calm and stable.
- Nobody must take part in any act against the Constitution."
The coverage of the coup bid is by no means an isolated example of TV's unwillingness to cover important political stories, critics say.
They said newscasters are always positive and the emphasis is on portraying the country's development, rather than to broadcast news objectively.
One TVK executive, who declined to be named, said: "The newscast has to be based on the government political line. About 30 percent of the TV news coverage has been self-censored by department directors who uphold the TV media guidelines instructed by Information Ministry. However what is beyond my responsibility I have to refer to the Ministry."
However Him Soung, department director of TVK, said all news reports are subject to in-house censorship by senior staff to avoid offending the government.
The Ministry's guidelines instruct TV stations to carry punctual, true and accurate news reports; to carry items that promote knowledge about democracy; and to show the entertaining programs.
The senior executive said: "Any news report which is not confirmed [by the government] has never been televised because if we insist on broadcasting it, it could cause alarm, turmoil, disorder, fright or difficulty for people in the entire country.
"Such items as the failed coup event and the debate [on banning the Khmer Rouge] at the National Assembly were not broadcast because they are not good [for the people]."
The senior executive said it was not just news reports which are subject to self-censorship by TVK. Anything considered harmful to the nation is cut, he said.
As an example he said: "If television shows a movie about a bank robbery what will be result with the audience who watch it?
"A real story of robbery might happen someday if anyone interested in robbery watch it and record it in their mind. Therefore we never show any bank robbery movies. "
The senior executive is not ashamed of the self-censorship imposed by TVK, on the contrary, he is proud of the work he does. He thinks the government's guidelines are right for the country's current volatile state. The time is not yet right for TV to go beyond that and begin reporting in an independent fashion, he added.
Over at Thai-owned IBC, Prum Kim, chief of news and editor, said his channel never reported the government's loss of the KR headquarters at Pailin. He says: "If we showed that it would not have gained the country anything."
He says he is now very careful about what he lets go out on air after receiving many complaining phone calls from the Information Ministry. Kim said they come from Information Minister Ieng Mouly but chiefly from Sieng Lapresse, who is the Ministry's director of cabinet and chief government spokesman.
Several times he has been summoned to the Ministry to receive warnings by the two ministers not to broadcast controversial items, especially concerning politics.
Kim said: "Some mistakes [which] have happened are unintentional. I don't want to make a problem happen [with the government]. I do my job to support my life.
"For the news I find that is controversial to be put to air, I try to avoid it. "
He quoted the example of receiving a phone call from not just Sieng Lapresse but also TVK after footage went to air of the July 2 debate on banning the KR which was organized by the Khmer Institute of Democracy.
"It happened in my absence, somebody else [at IBC] was responsible, " he said, adding that he would not have allowed the item to be broadcast.
Kim explained that as TVK is the government station it provides a lead on what can and cannot be aired and he says he often consults senior TVK staff about editorial decisions.
Aside from self-censorship, twice a week the IBC voluntarily submits all video tapes of material that has gone to air.
However in an interview with the Post , Information Minister Ieng Mouly said: "So far ministry has never censored a newscast.
"They [the TV channels] are independent like newspapers. Freedom of media applies to both television and newspapers.
"Like newspapers, if they use improper indecent words, the Ministry ask them to come to the office and tell them not to do such a thing again."
Mouly said the submission of tapes by IBC was a " courtesy" because the Ministry has never acted after viewing them. In fact, said the Minister, there are not sufficient staff or equipment to view the tapes.
TV journalists and executives said the application of government guidelines has become way of life for them and few have thoughts of rebelling against the system.
They say they compile reports which will not antagonize the government or they fear that they might loose their jobs.
One said: "We are afraid of being suspended or terminated."
Soung said: "TVK is a state-run media, it only serves the country's common interest.
"It is not biased, not like some papers, they don't respect the truth.
"On some points they [print journalists] tell lies which can cause their career to go downhill."
Ky Long, the head of TVK's newsroom, said it was logistics and cash which often caused reports to seem superficial.
Long said: "There is no problem with censorship, but problems with finances which cause a lack of news reports from the countryside.
"Allowances for journalists who are assigned to cover reports in the rural areas are only 5,000 riels per day and they are only allowed three days for a trip.
"With those amonts of money journalists cannot afford to reach remote areas for reports."
On the street IBC is far more popular than TVK and CTV, formerly Funcinpec TV.