Tiang Vida, an online reporter for Voice of Democracy Hot News, stood in front of the stage at Freedom Park last Monday waiting to hear about the ongoing talks between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
The meeting had taken longer than expected. On stage, pop music acts tried to keep the mood upbeat, but many among the crowd of some 10,000 Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters were anxious in the aftermath of the previous night’s clashes between protestors and police that left one man dead.
Using his Samsung smartphone, Vida took photos of the rally and forwarded them to his editor via Facebook along with brief news updates. A few minutes later, his dispatches appeared online.
Vida is one of two dedicated online reporters employed by a news website recently launched by the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media (CCIM), the legal entity of the non-profit radio station Voice of Democracy, in its first attempt to break into online news reporting.
After the rally, Vida said that the other Cambodian journalists he recognised at Freedom Park were from independent, nonprofit media organisations such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
The larger, ‘government run’ outlets, as he described them, may have been present, but are generally hesitant to cover opposition politics.
“The TV broadcasts mostly just talk about the effects that the protestors have on the roads and blocking traffic.”
VOD Hot News, which went live in July, is not Cambodia’s first online news site, but it hopes to be the first Cambodian owned one to sustain itself through commercial ad revenue while featuring independent, unbiased political coverage. The site already pulls in some 2,000 to 3,000 unique visitors each day, most from Phnom Penh, its creators said.
It’s a new direction for the 10-year-old Voice of Democracy radio station, which wants to branch out from the older medium.
“If you have a website, you can quickly post news on websites and you can reach people who don’t listen to radio,” said Sun Narin, the online news editor, who said that he thinks that young Cambodians prefer going online.
Among the site’s features are updates from VOD’s citizen journalism program, in which 24 citizen journalists throughout 12 provinces – each one selected for being particularly active within their local community – report on local news stories.
The journalists, who are in the 10th month of a two-year journalism training program, were each equipped with a smartphone to use for recording audio for radio programming, taking photos and filing stories. They are usually only compensated for phone credit purchases, but may be awarded $3 for stories that include a full article, photograph, audio or interview with three sources.
Mguon Krend, a 28-year-old VOD citizen journalist from Ratanakkiri, said that VOD Hot News has opened up a whole new world of media to him. Without VOD’s radio broadcasts, which do not reach his province, he is dependent on his smartphone for independent news. However, he said that he has found his ‘dream job’ in journalism.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a spokesman because I wanted to report what I know to everyone I know.”
Despite knowing none of the basics of reporting before VOD recruited him earlier this year, his stories now appear on the Hot News site’s front page.
The path hasn’t been smooth for the website’s creators, however, who have discovered that political reporting comes with a price.
Narin, who is tasked with creating content that will appeal to advertisers, said it is difficult to attract advertisers in a country where the ruling party actively discourages giving any voice to the opposition. Even the word ‘democracy’ alienates advertisers, making VOD shy about using its full name in its branding, said Narin, who added that they instead emphasise their Roman script initials.
“Although we are independent, in the Cambodian context we are opposition,” said Narin, adding that companies with links to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party are afraid to advertise on VOD.
“If we have a tendency to the ruling party, it’s okay, but if we have tendencies to the opposition party, they won’t advertise.”
It’s a widespread problem. Media outlets that cover human rights issues in Cambodia are likely to draw the ire of the government, according to Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of VOD and former deputy director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
“When anyone covers [human rights], the government always considers them the enemy. They think, if you are not on my side you are the enemy,” he said.
VOD has been known for its political and social content since it was established in 2003 by CCHR, which was then under the direction of Kem Sokha, who is today the vice-president of the CNRP.
The radio production group separated from CCHR in 2007 after Sokha entered politics as founder of the Human Rights Party, and VOD’s legal entity, CCIM, was founded by Teang. The following year, CCIM began operating its own radio station, Sarika FM, to broadcast VOD programming.
Today, VOD receives its funding from the Open Society Foundations, a US grant fund founded by George Soros, DanChurchAid, a Danish Christian aid organisation, and Dikonia, a Swedish Christian human rights organisation that works on land rights issues in Cambodia.
But Teang said that reliance on NGO funding is precarious due to the unstable winds of grant writing, which usually changes on an annual basis.
“One day they may change their program or go to another place, so we must depend on our own income generation.”
While companies with ties to the government may shy away from advertising with VOD, Teang said, others could find sponsoring an unbiased independent media outlet a quiet way of supporting political freedom.
“This is something that happens inside their hearts. Because of political pressure, they don’t want to say anything. But they want to support us.”
Teang is personally familiar with the perils of coming into conflict with the government. In January 2006, when he served as CCHR’s deputy director, he spent 17 days in Prey Sar prison along with Kem Sokha after the pair allegedly displayed banners at a rally accusing Hun Sen of ceding Cambodian territory to Vietnam.
VOD itself was targeted briefly in June 2012 prior to the commune election when it was ordered not to broadcast election-related news for a two-day period. Music played on the station instead.
It’s not just fear of government reprisals that scare off potential advertisers, according to Narin, but an emphasis on politics rather than film stars or singers.
“If Cambodian advertisers see that a website is serious, they do not invest or try to advertise,” Narin said.
In hopes of attracting more web traffic, VOD Hot News is beginning to include less heated topics such as entertainment, health and technology.
The site features about two or three soft news stories a day, although they plan to expand their coverage.
Narin said that their combination of unbiased political reporting with lifestyle news is a first for Cambodian owned media, and that the website will steer clear of graphic photos of traffic accidents as used by some of the competition.
“If they like political news, they can go to VOD, and if they like entertainment news, they can go to VOD,” said Narin.
Unfortunately, the incorporation of commercial advertisement into VOD inevitably brings with it the conflict of interest dilemmas faced by most private media companies.
Teang said that they will not advertise alcohol or tobacco products, while Camile Bethoux, VOD’s fundraising manager, said that they must carefully vet potential sponsors’ human rights records.
“We are covering a lot of land grabbing issues and worker’s issues, so you have companies you don’t want to have any money from,” Bethoux said.
Furthermore, VOD IT manager Sok Ty said that the company will not be as advertising heavy as other Khmer news sites, with some having so many adverts that “you don’t even know that it’s a news website”.
While there may be hurdles ahead for VOD’s bold strive toward financial sustainability, its reporters are optimistic.
For Krend in Ratanakkiri, VOD has provided an information lifeline that he said his province desperately needs.
“We do not want to live in the well – to see the sky so small. But when we know all the news that is happening, our ideas become big, like the sky.”