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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Who's who in the Khmer fourth estate

Who's who in the Khmer fourth estate

F ROM the bland to the sensational, the sycophantic to the vitriolic, the

Cambodian newspaper market offers no shortage of choice.

The fledgling

press which sprang up with Cambodia's move to democracy is now in full blossom,

with 42 Khmer-language "newspapers, magazines, bulletins and newsletters"

registered with the Ministry of Information.

One result has been a fierce

circulation war, which recently came close to claiming two main players as

victims.

Both of the country's Khmer-run daily newspapers - Rasmei

Kampuchea and Koh Santepheap - narrowly avoided being closed down by their

owners last month.

The two-year-old Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Kampuchea)

claims a circulation of 10,000, down from twice that four or five months

ago.

Editor-in-Chief Pen Samitthy blames the circulation fall on stiff

competition and fewer readers being able to afford to buy newspapers every

day.

With a staff of 70 and correspondents in most provinces, the 12-page

Rasmei Kampuchea is considered as close to a comprehensive newspaper as Cambodia

has.

Printed in Bangkok with color on the front and back pages, it is

better-looking than other newspapers, which, as one person puts it, look like

"someone has picked up a bunch of pictures and type and thrown them at a

page".

Samitthy proclaims the paper as unrivaled in professionalism, and

is critical of some competitors.

"In Cambodia, many people do not think

that this is a business. They think newspapers should support this politician,

or that politician.

"Mr A gives the newspaper $500, Mr B gives them $1000

and they can publish another issue. They keep publishing like that."

He

talks of newspapers printing stories without facts, or constantly criticizing

public figures such as Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

"Today, they

[publish] opinion about Hun Sen, that he is bad. Tomorrow, they will also say

bad, bad, bad...

"If I was Hun Sen, I would also [be unhappy] with Nguon

Nuon and Chan Dara," he says of two journalists, one jailed and the other killed

last year.

However, he later adds: "I was the first person to embrace

Nguon Noun when he came out of jail. Of course, we support our

colleagues."

For its part, Rasmei Kampuchea - owned jointly by Thai

companies Thai Boon Rong and the Wattachak publishing group - is seen by some as

being pro-government, and pro-Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in

particular.

Samitthy rejects that, saying: "Sometimes we have articles

supporting the government or supporting the CPP but we have many articles

against them."

But the newspaper does prefer to stay out of politics. Its

owners dictate that it should not concern itself with "matters of policy",

according to Samitthy.

"But of course our articles must sometimes be

about [government] policy," and the owners do not object "if we give balanced

coverage".

A possible sign of the paper's government relations came

recently when its owners proposed closing it because of high-running

costs.

One expense cited was the tax paid on its newspapers when imported

from Thailand after printing, so Samitthy personally appealed to Hun Sen for a

tax exemption.

"I called Samdech Hun Sen and he agreed... I don't know

whether [First Prime Minister] Prince Ranariddh will agree... but I think there

is a more than 90 per cent chance that he will agree."

Also shying away

from political news is the other daily newspaper, Koh Santepheap (Island of

Peace), which doesn't try to live up to its name.

The four-page

broadsheet is an unabashed tabloid-style newspaper. Full of crime stories, the

more gruesome the better, it's the National Inquirer of Cambodia.

"Not so

much about politics - only killing," is Koh Santepheap office manager Chheav Sy

Pha's description of the paper's contents. A copy of that day's edition lies in

front of him, the faces of five or six dead, or near dead, people staring out of

the front page photographs.

First opened in 1968 and closed two days

before the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Koh Santepheap was the first

non-official newspaper to reopen during UNTAC.

It claims to have had a

50,000 circulation in those heady early days, quenching a public thirsty for

information, now down to 5,500-7,000.

Its publisher, Thong Uypang - said

to have past links to the CPP - has become something of a mystery man, known for

greeting visitors, when he can be found, with a pistol lying on his

desk.

He wasn't about when the Post visited - he'd gone to Thailand,

apparently, without telling his staff.

Chheav Sy Pha said that wasn't

unusual, particularly after Uypang's Kompong Cham journalist, Chan Dara, was

murdered in December.

"He doesn't let people know where he is. Many

people hate this newspaper because of our reports on crime."

That Koh

Santepheap does its job well is undisputed - Rasmei Kampuchea's Pin Samitthy

talks of assigning more reporters to crime news after being scooped too often -

but it has its critics for being sensational.

Another newspaper with a

popular, but highly political, niche is the tri-weekly Samleng Yuvachon Khmer

(Voice of Khmer Youth).

Probably the government's No.1 enemy in the Khmer

press, its trademark is bluntly-worded stories alleging corruption,

mismanagement and more by senior government figures.

Initially set up to

promote Funcinpec in the UNTAC elections, it now supports party dissidents such

as Sam Rainsy. It is also strongly anti-Vietnamese, and includes Hun Sen in the

Vietnamese camp.

It has paid a heavy price for its abrupt style, with its

first editor, Non Chan, murdered. It has been subjected to suspensions and

seizures by the authorities.

Current editor Chan Rottana was recently

sentenced to 12 months jail, for an opinion piece criticizing the First Prime

Minister under a headline which roughly translates to "Prince Ranariddh is three

times more stupid a day than Hun Sen". Free on appeal, he says he intends to

resign.

Deputy Chief Editor Ou Sovann defends the newspaper's style on

the grounds that it is trying to urge the government to improve, and "everyone

can express their opinion in a democratic country".

He claims a stable

circulation of around 6,000 copies, but higher when there is some "good news" -

"especially articles or news about the government".

Formerly funded by

Funcinpec, and particularly Sam Rainsy, it now denies receiving any political

funding.

Owned solely by three former and current editors - in Non Chan's

case, his widow - Sovann says the newspaper makes a small profit from

circulation sales alone.

Others in the industry say such papers, their

pages usually devoid of any paid advertisements, must have financial

benefactors.

Other newspapers which have faced official sanctions include

Sereipheap Thmei (New Liberty News), now being sued by the government, and the

currently-suspended Uddom Gati Khmer (Khmer Ideal).

Damneung Pelpreuk

(Morning News) - whose editor Nguon Nuon, a Funcinpec supporter, was jailed for

implicating Interior Minister Sar Kheng in last year's coup attempt - is said by

some Khmer observers to have softened its political coverage recently.

On

the opposite side of the spectrum are the government-owned newspapers Kampuchea

and Pracheachun (People), which push the official line, and a host of

publications that fall somewhere in between.

"There's a whole bunch that

are pro-government or anti-government," says one journalist. "A number are

politically-backed, and whoever is doing the backing has deep pockets of one

sort or another.

"On both sides, there are opinion articles presented as

[news] stories which aren't really stories. There's bad on both sides."

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