Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Blood and Bribes: Inside the Khmer Press -

Blood and Bribes: Inside the Khmer Press -

Blood and Bribes: Inside the Khmer Press -

khmer.jpg
khmer.jpg

At first glance, Cambodian newspapers have the kind of freedom a Murdoch tabloid

editor could only dream of.

A reader scans the front page of one of Cambodia's many newspapers at a city newsstand.

The blatant political biases of publishers and editors make the front pages of the

Khmer press lurid canvasses where political opponents are painted in as degrading

terms as possible.

Truth is often incidental, hearsay is treated like fact while a push-pull dynamic

of extortion and bribes create or kill news stories as quickly as the opening of

a wallet.

With dozens of titles available, publishers are savvy to the fact that the most salacious

stories are the ones that sell, and reporters operating under self-mocking nom de

plumes such as "Agent 007" or "The Morning Star" can be counted

on to provide.

"Most [news] stories are based on rumors," says Cambodian Association for

the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) President Um Sarin. "Often [reporters]

don't go in the field. Sometimes they make a phone call, but other times they just

dream [stories] up."

In 1999 the tendency to "dream up" news stories led to a public health

scare when one newspaper claimed that all condoms in Cambodia had been tainted with

the AIDS virus by their manufacturers in Vietnam and Thailand. Government pressure

forced a retraction, but not before the story had entered the annals of Cambodian

popular myth.

Sarin places much of the blame for such poor quality journalism on inadequate training,

but says journalists are not solely responsible for the current state of the Cambodian

press.

"The problem lies in all elements: the owner, publisher, editor, and the reporters,"

he said.

While Cambodia has around 120 newspaper titles registered with the Ministry of Information

(MOI) many of these rarely publish or are merely so-called "wishing papers",

newspapers that only publish for big occasions such as the King's birthday and contain

nothing but congratulatory messages.

More often than not newspapers support their publication by dubious means. Norbert

Klein, editor of The Mirror, an English-language translation of Khmer press extracts,

since its inception in 1997 is intimately familiar with the questionable nature of

many of the Kingdom's newspapers.

"Each week there are 10 to 20 newspapers [of the 30 publishing regularly] with

little or no advertising revenue," Klein said. "This to me shows that these

are not real newspapers -they are opinion papers or propaganda instruments."

Political bias

Yet, with or without advertising revenue, virtually all Cambodian-language newspapers

wear their political sympathies on their sleeves. Rasmei Kampuchea and The Evening

News take a consistently pro-CPP stance while Khmer Conscience and Voice of Khmer

Youth have a pro-Sam Rainsy Party editorial line.

Khieu Kanharith, Secretary of State of the MOI, agrees that the Khmer press is riddled

with political bias, but argues that only the development of a sizable market will

change the situation.

"Some newspapers don't have any news at all - just their opinions," he

said, adding that a more independent press would come with economic development so

profitable newspapers could be "free from political and financial pressure".

Sarin says the real cost of the media's poor reputation is borne by the journalists

seeking to do credible, objective reporting.

"When [honest journalists] have a real story about corruption, the high ranking

officials just say 'don't believe it, it's only the Khmer press, take no notice',"

he said.

However, Klein says that over the past four years there has been evidence of rising

journalistic standards.

"It's visible that a certain training in basic journalistic skills is going

on," said Klein, citing the recent tendency to attribute names and dates to

some quotes.

Certainly the headline writers have toned down the rhetoric of a few years ago, when

newsstands were graced with papers screaming headlines such as "The King Changes

his Mind Like a Woman Changes her Panties" and "Minister of Justice PHD

isn't Worth Fly Shit".

Pressure from the MOI has also taken some of the blood off the front pages.

"The worst case I can remember was a front page color photograph of a naked

woman who had been cut in half" said Klein, noting the improving standards.

In spite of those gains, Cambodian newspapers are still notorious for using the public's

"right to know" as a convenient cloak for extortion.

'Licence to blackmail'

In March a Cambodian journalist with the Sihanoukville Evening News was arrested

after attempting to extort money from a nightclub owner involved in an assault case.

The journalist had allegedly demanded $150 in return for not publishing an incriminating

photograph of the nightclub owner.

Kanharith says that is a typical story. "They use their license and their press

card just to blackmail people," he said.

Hun Sen was typically more blunt last year when he talked about the caliber of the

Kingdom's journalists, saying that "...about 25% of Cambodian journalists are

working like kidnappers by demanding money from government officials, otherwise they

would report something bad about them".

Khieu Kola of the Club of Cambodian Journalists agrees, but says the government is

complicit in the corruption of journalists.

"...He [Hun Sen] needs to control the government [in offering bribes],"

Kola said. "Who makes the corruption, the reporters or the government?"

Sarin adds that many extortionists are in fact not real journalists but are operating

with fake press cards purchased from the MOI. Kanharith rejects this, claiming that

only editors give out false press cards.

A free press?

Article 41 of the Cambodian Constitution guarantees a free press and Klein argues

that "Cambodia has probably the [most free] press in South East Asia".

"I like this quote from [historian] David Chandler: 'In Cambodia there has never

been a distinction between a difference of opinion and treason'...[but now] while

you can't touch the King, you can read almost every week the 'the PM is a thief'

and so on," said Klein.

Kola agrees

"I must say the government has increased their tolerance of the press recently,"

he said.

But Sarin worries that the Kingdom's journalists are merely enjoying the eye of the

political control storm.

"If you look quickly [the answer is] 'Yes the Khmer press is free', but if you

look more deeply then [the answer is] 'no'...when the politicians shake hands then

[political parties] don't need so much bias, but when there's conflict then things

may change" he said.

If the recent Democracy in Cambodia survey is any guide, political pressure and bribes

to newspapers may all be much ado about nothing. According to survey figures just

4% of voters read a newspaper every day - and 62% never read a newspaper at all.

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