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
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,
By contrast, Sam Rainsy's set includes "is calling for"; "announced";
"argues"; and "reasons". These seem to suggest a voice of initiative
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