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Cambodia in the Western Press: Whose Reality?

Cambodia in the Western Press: Whose Reality?


The Economist: How does it interpret a country like Cambodia?

This essay stems from a concern I have with how Cambodia is represented in the Western

media. In particular, as a linguist, I am interested in how language is used to represent


One of the more influential linguists of the 20th century was Benjamin Lee Whorf

who, developing the theories of his mentor, Edward Sapir, posited that one's native

language determined to a great extent the nature of one's thinking, and this in turn

resulted in how one perceived the world.

Thus, Khmer speakers construe and perceive the world differently from English speakers

because their concrete and abstract worlds are different. Whorf's theory of 'linguistic

relativity' remains somewhat contentious in contemporary linguistic circles, but

a general consensus has formed around the notion that one's native language at least

influences, if not determines, one's thoughts and perceptions.

Linguistic relativity raises the issue of how speakers of one language make sense

of the rest of the world, that is, understanding, interpreting and explaining cultural

environments and semiotic systems different from their own. There is an inherent

problem, therefore, and one of significant dimensions, in the Western media's English

language reporting of an Asian country such as Cambodia.

I have conducted a study which has investigated this problem with regard to how an

influential publication, The Economist magazine, has reported on Cambodia over the

past dozen years.

The Economist has a long tradition (over 160 years) of promoting its view of the

world. Its creed of 'democracy, rule of law and free markets' is like a filter through

which it perceives reality. The creed itself is derived from an Anglo-American perspective

of what is claimed to be rational behavior. (Indeed, The Economist's official biography

published on its 150th anniversary is titled The Pursuit of Reason).

The Economist claims that the West's rise to world prominence over the past few hundred

years rests on the soundness of the pillars of democracy, rule of law and free markets.

It therefore promotes these concepts as having universal applicability. Each week

it publishes a fresh issue dealing primarily with current affairs in politics, economics,

finance and technology, all viewed through the ideological filter of its creed.

How then does The Economist interpret a country like Cambodia, one with a different

language and culture, and different traditions and values? To what extent does the

magazine attempt to explain Cambodia from a Cambodian perspective, and to what extent

does it simply rely on a North-Atlantic interpretation? To what extent are its representations

bound by the limitations of its own particular discourse of English?

My study of The Economist's reporting on Cambodia initially examined all 129 published

articles relating to Cambodia between 26th October 1991 and 30th June 2002. These

included editorials, long and short reports.

Measuring The Economist's creed is possible through simple content analysis in which

each article is classified according to the principal topics of its content.

The results indicated approximately 70% of the articles were concerned in some direct

way with issues of democracy, rule of law or free markets, while the balance often

related to the UN/UNTAC or the Khmer Rouge.

Other issues were much less reported, in particular the issues of most relevance

to the majority of ordinary Cambodians: clean water; food security; health care;

and education. These findings provide clear evidence that The Economist views Cambodia

primarily in terms of its creed of democracy, rule of law and free markets.

Measuring the ideological positioning of The Economist's content requires more sophisticated

linguistic analyses. Here we might enlist support from Whorf's theory of linguistic

relativity. That is, relative to other languages, English has a preponderance of

what are known as "speech act verbs". These are verbs which do more than

simply convey information (such as 'say', 'tell' or 'ask'. They also convey cultural

and situational meaning and realize an "act" of some kind (for example,

'promise', 'thank' or 'threaten' etc.).

In fact, English has more than 200 speech act verbs, and this suggests that voice

projection in English has a more important role in meaning making than in other languages.

On this premise I explored voice projection in The Economist's reporting on Cambodia

through focusing on a subset of 18 of the 129 articles, identified by their prominent

placement in the magazine's Asia section and their significant length (averaging

940 words). These 18 key articles had been given a privileged status vis-à-vis

the other articles and, accordingly, they merited closer investigation concerning

how Cambodia was being represented in them.

The Economist's reporting on Cambodia is a blend of the writer's own voic

e and a selection of other voices. Indeed, it is through projecting a variety of

voices that different perspectives and different world views can be articulated.

To determine to what extent a Cambodian perspective was permeating the articles,

I investigated whose voice was presented and how it was presented. (My analysis unpacked

the concept of 'voice' into projections of speech, thought and writing, and investigated

grammatical structures and lexical selections).

The issue of voice is particularly interesting in The Economist since its editor

has gone on record dismissing, at least for The Economist's writers, the journalistic

tradition of creating a report built around citations from news- makers, witnesses,

analysts, commentators etc.

He has stated that the magazine's writers are meant to write "in a straight

line" after having determined what the various viewpoints are on any given news

item or issue. His writers therefore have more liberty to structure their reports

as they wish, and simply blend in citations for their rhetorical effect. In generic

terms, this practice draws The Economist's reports towards "commentary and opinion"

and away from news "reporting".

How then has The Economist represented Cambodia through voice projection? I would

like to answer this question first in terms of a general overview, and then more

specifically in terms of the contrast between the voice projections of two key political

players, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy. My analysis of 'non-authorial voices' in the 18

key articles revealed that less than half of the voice projectors were unambiguously

Cambodian. This rather astonishing finding suggests that to make sense of Cambodia

for the benefit of its readers, the magazine has relied heavily on non-Cambodian

sources (such as the UN, other diplomats, and Western experts).

Furthermore, out of a total of several hundred voice projections, there were no Cambodian

women cited and only once was a voice attributed to a "Khmer-in-the-street".

Thus, through the semantic system of voice projection, power relations are reinforced:

the voices that matter in Cambodia are male and elite, despite the fact that there

are more female Cambodians than male, and the peasantry makes up 80% of the country's


Let us now consider in more detail the voice projections of Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy.

One can anticipate The Economist favoring Sam Rainsy and disfavoring Hun Sen, but

how exactly does the magazine deploy linguistic resources to realize these meanings?

My linguistic analyses of voice (i.e. speech and thought projections) through grammatical

structure and lexical selection revealed interesting and systematic differences in

the representations of these two Cambodians.

Although Hun Sen was prime minister (or co-prime minister) throughout the period

covered by the 18 articles (1991-1998), he is 'missing in action' in terms of voice

projection in the first nine articles (i.e. up to the UNTAC election results). Thereafter

his voice is reported with some regularity: initially through direct quotation (on

three occasions), and then only through indirect reports. His direct quotations are

always short (e.g. "a good sport"; "good job"; "mistakes")

and ambiguous as to whether the quotation is a verbatim report, someone's translation

from Khmer to English, or the reporter's euphemism for what was actually said.

His subsequent voice reports are nestled into the journalist's own discourse in a

manner that suggests a high degree of authorial control over the citation. One can

summarize the treatment of Hun Sen's voice across the 18 articles as initially one

of neglect, followed by a short trial of allowing direct speech, and then settling

comfortably into the habit of indirect reporting only.

In contrast to this treatment, Sam Rainsy is given extensive direct quotations in

all five articles in which his speech is reported.

A closer examination reveals the special treatment given to his speech.

First, his projections are complete as "stand alone" sentences (even when

introduced by reporting clauses such as "he said that...".

Second, they are generally much more significant in length (45 words; 12 words; 15

words; 23 words; and 4 words).

Third, on three of five occasions, the quote is in initial position in the clause

structure, preceding the identification of the projector. This allows a further increment

of direct appeal to the reader, not available if the quote is set up by a preceding

reporting clause.

Fourth, the content of Sam Rainsy's messages is sometimes of a 'universal' rather

than 'local' nature. Thus, at times his voice seems to be not so much his own idiosyncratic

one but rather a more prototypical 'Western activist' one.

In one instance he says, "No human being should have to choose between bread

and freedom". This quote is particularly revealing in its use of the word "bread"

(a Western metaphor) rather than "rice" (the staple food in Cambodia).

To sum up these differences in the treatment of speech projection, the patterns of

use of direct quotes show quite clearly that Hun Sen's voice is highly restricted

and mediated (as it is nestled into the reporter's own discourse), whereas Sam Rainsy

has a privileged position in terms of being allowed to speak at length and directly

to the reader.

Another interesting contrast between the speech projection of Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy

concerns the lexical selections of projecting verbs. Discounting the neutral "says",

Hun Sen's set includes "likes to emphasize that"; "claims"; "likes

to imply"; "insists that"; "threatened"; "felt able

to boast that"; and "ordered".

These seem to suggest either a defensive or offensive stance, rather than a calm,

stable one.

By contrast, Sam Rainsy's set includes "is calling for"; "announced";

"argues"; and "reasons". These seem to suggest a voice of initiative

and reason.

An analysis of the projected thought of Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy provide an equally

striking contrast. Hun Sen is given 12 projections of thought, but five are shared

with others (e.g. "Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh cannot agree about..."),

while Sam Rainsy is given 10 projections of which just one is shared.

Thus, even at this broad level of analysis, Sam Rainsy is subtly represented as being

the more independent thinker of the two. The lexical choices for projecting thoughts

also serve to distinguish these two adversaries.

When analyzed for their 'lexical spread' along a continuum ranging from perceptive

(e.g. "see") to cognitive (e.g. "think") to desiderative (e.g.

"want") to emotive (e.g. "fear"), Hun Sen's thoughts are projected

overwhelmingly by desiderative type verbs, indicating his wants and desires. By contrast,

Sam Rainsy projects across all four zones of the continuum, which serves to dimensionalize

and thereby humanize him more than Hun Sen.

To sum up the findings of my study of the speech and thought projections of Hun Sen

and Sam Rainsy, one can see how Sam Rainsy's voice projection clearly aligns him

closely with The Economist's creed of democracy, rule of law and free markets, as

well as its use of rational argument to back its world view.

By contrast, Hun Sen's voice is under-reported and, linguistically speaking, a polar

opposite to Sam Rainsy's. So, why do these findings matter?

The Cambodian census taken in 1998 revealed that 80 percent of Cambodians lived in

rural areas and worked as subsistence farmers. What might these people have to say

about democracy, the rule of law and free markets?

A national survey conducted in 2000 (Democracy in Cambodia) sponsored by the Asia

Foundation revealed that fully two-thirds of respondents could not describe any characteristics

of a democratic country, and over half held a paternalistic view of government, consistent

with their cultural heritage.

To these people - the overwhelming majority of the population - Sam Rainsy's ideas

must seem not only alien but also potentially dangerous: they involve taking significant

risks in discarding the familiar and real, in favor of the unfamiliar and abstract.

Hun Sen, by contrast, faithfully represents their cultural heritage and expectations,

no matter how he may be perceived by foreigners (including The Economist).

Let us now return to my opening remarks about language and world view. English is

the language resource through which The Economist creates and patterns its own discourse.

As this essay has shown, the linguistic patterns it uses to project speech and thought

in its reporting on Cambodia do not vary randomly, but rather, are an index of the

magazine's ideological creed, one alien to Cambodia's culture, tradition and values.

As Whorf wrote some 60 years ago:

"And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which

are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only

communicates, but also analyses nature, notices or neglects types of relationships

and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness."

I would argue, therefore, that the consciousness of Cambodia that one can gain from

relying on Western media such as The Economist can only be a serious distortion of

the indigenous view of the majority of Cambodians. Worryingly, too many people, including

those in positions of power and authority, rely too heavily on Western media representations

of Cambodia in formulating their own sense of Cambodia's reality.

Stephen H. Moore is based at the Centre for Language in Social Life, Macquarie

University, Sydney.


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