Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - CPP rules the television and radio waves

CPP rules the television and radio waves

CPP rules the television and radio waves

REACHING out to voters is paramount for a political party in any free election. In

Cambodia, where political intimidation is a harsh reality for opposition parties,

radio is the undisputed medium of choice but access to the airwaves is at present

in near exclusive control of the CPP and its allies.

Television may be the most popular vehicle for national campaigns in developed countries,

but in the Cambodian countryside where 80% of the Cambodian electorate lives, lack

of disposable income and a steady power source make television antennae a rare sight

outside of provincial capitals.

A thriving political newspaper industry also exists in Phnom Penh, but readership

plunges outside the capital. Only 26% of Siem Reap's adult residents can read and

write, according to the UN Development Program, and the rugged northeastern province

of Mondulkiri rates a lowly 16%.

Radios, by comparison, are relatively cheap, literacy is not an issue and - as the

Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng can attest - broadcasts can be received over a wide area.

Most major political parties have determined that radio transmitters capable of broadcasting

in a 50 km radius will fit their campaign budgets, but the Information Ministry has

only granted broadcasting licenses to parties that won seats in the 1993 UN-sponsored

election.

"If I start granting licenses, then I will need to grant something like 40 of

them... Technically, it is impossible," Information Secretary of State Khieu

Kanharith said, adding that stations in Phnom Penh are already complaining of broadcasts

overlapping. "We have 21 stations already and I think it is too much."

Khmer Nation Party leader Sam Rainsy, who has been denied a license, asserted that

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen promised his party a radio station during the two politicians'

brief spate of cooperation.

"He said he would send a letter to Ieng Mouly," Rainsy said. "There

hasn't been a fulfillment of the promise."

The KNP president repeated a feeling shared by parties in opposition to the Hun Sen-led

government - that radio broadcasts will be the only way to get their political messages

to the people without exposing party members to possible intimidation and violent

retribution from the CPP-dominated security forces.

"If we can speak through the air it is less dangerous," Rainsy said. "For

[the campaign] to be fair we need access. I will remind Hun Sen about that."

Khmer Citizen Party president Nguon Soeur, a CPP ally who has little difficulty finding

his way onto local radio and television, had an opposing opinion on media access,

complaining that Rainsy is over-represented in the foreign press.

"Some French- and English-language newspapers like The Cambodia Daily and the

Phnom Penh Post report a lot about Sam Rainsy but say very little about myself,"

Nguon Soeur said. "If Sam Rainsy does something very minor he gets a full page

[of coverage] but for me they write only one sentence."

The CPP currently dominates the airwaves with at least three stations under its belt:

the Apsara Media Group, with CPP Secretary-General Say Chhum a controlling shareholder,

broadcasts over FM 97; Hun Sen's Takhmao-based Bayon Radio at FM 95; and the privately-owned

FM 99, which Information Ministry sources say openly favors the CPP.

The only other UNTAC-era party with an operational radio station is Ieng Mouly's

BLDP off-shoot, the Buddhist Liberal Party. A wildcard on the radio scene is the

Bee Hive party of Mom Sonando, the popular talk show host who owned his station before

entering politics.

Son Soubert's BLDP faction has been allowed by the Ministry of Information to re-establish

its radio station, according to parliamentarian Thach Reng, but the party is still

in the process of obtaining equipment to replace what was lost in the July coup.

The BLDP, which is expected to campaign as the Teaching Democracy party, at first

had trouble obtaining a license because the party itself was not allowed register

as an owner, Thach Reng said. To settle the matter a BLDP-controlled association

was formed to act as owner - apparently standard procedure for all party-affiliated

radio and television stations.

Funcinpec, still scrambling to set up its smashed political network, has found its

former radio and television business partners no longer keen to work for Prince Norodom

Ranariddh.

"We have been blacked out from the media at the moment," complained senior

party official Lu Laysreng. "Now there is no way to get our message out."

Funcinpec's radio equipment suffered the same fate as the BLDP's during the July

fighting and the party's frequency, FM 90, has been "robbed" from the party

and given to former station staff, Lu Laysreng said.

Although he lamented that "everybody knows channel 90 is Funcinpec", Lu

Laysreng and the party have apparently accepted defeat and have applied for a new

frequency. Khieu Kanharith indicated that Funcinpec radio will be allowed to revive.

What Cambodian viewers previously called "Funcinpec television", Channel

9, will apparently no longer carry news dominated by Prince Ranariddh. The station

owner, Khun Hang, does not want to be affiliated with a political party, according

to Khieu Kanharith. The station declined comment.

"Some people have already gone to the director at Channel 9 and tried to force

the station to accept them as Funcinpec," he said, adding later that both Ranariddh's

and Siem Reap Governor Toan Chay's parties wanted control of the station.

In the meantime, television stations remain in near exclusive control of the Hun

Sen-led government and the CPP: TVK is government run; Channel 3, or "Phnom

Penh TV" is in the hands of CPP municipal leader Chea Sophara; Channel 5 is

the domain of the CPP-dominated military; Say Chhum's Apsara Television broadcasts

on channel 11; and Hun Sen's Bayon media company has expanded into the television

market on channel 27.

Despite the CPP's apparent dominance, Khieu Kanharith said the party's many media

outlets will not be the deciding factor in the electoral race. "It's not about

having more TV or radio stations to obtain an advantage. It is how you conduct your

campaign," he said.

Parties without their own radio and television stations will presumably have the

option to buy time from private broadcasters or stations owned by their political

allies in the run-up to the official campaign. Mom Sonando and Thach Reng both said

their radio stations would consider letting other parties buy air time.

However, Kanharith has cautioned that radio and television broadcasters will not

be allowed to disseminate the same kind of politically-biased stories that appear

in the sometimes unscrupulous Khmer press.

"We must be careful about radio and television. It must be more strict than

a printing press," he said. "I have asked every [broadcaster] not to incite

violence or slander another political party."

Mom Sonando said he received a warning letter from the Information Ministry after

he unveiled his party stating that he was forbidden to use the radio as a political

tool. Kanharith countered that the ministry merely requested a clarification of his

intentions and that Sonando was free to discuss politics on air.

Equal and free access to "all media, including the press, television and radio"

is guaranteed under the election law for the official one-month election campaign

expected to begin June 25. Monitoring and control of the media will shift from the

Information Ministry to the National Election Commission during this period.

Kanharith said he has recommended that political messages be restricted to government-controlled

media during the campaign. "It will be better to avoid any tensions if the small

political parties are not at a disadvantage to the big parties [with their own media

outlets]," he said, adding that time slots on radio and television should be

granted at random as was done during the UNTAC election.

NEC members were reluctant to talk about the commission's plans for media access,

but with former CPP Information Undersecretary Prom Nean Vichet set to head the NEC's

standing subcommittee on media, Kanharith's recommendations will no doubt be taken

into consideration.

One election worker complained that Vichet, who declined to discuss NEC media strategy

with the Post, has already tried to minimize the commission's access and control

of the media. The source said he feared the former CPP member's actions were part

of a concerted effort by the party to maintain an unfair advantage during the campaign.

"When we talk about equal access to the media we can expect it to be like everything

else regarding elections - an obstacle will be put wherever there is an opportunity

to make one," he said.

Opposition politicians expressed particular concern on access to provincial radio

and television, which is mostly government-run. Others fretted about the procedure

for determining which party will get prime-time television and radio spots - lunch

and dinner hours - during the campaign.

"Yes, they will provide time on the government-controlled media, but they could

give me midnight [as Funcinpec's time slot]," Lu Laysreng said.

Most major political parties are already gearing up for a pre-campaign media blitz

with the CPP and its allies off to the earliest start as the opposition struggles

to reorganize.

Kanharith confirmed that the CPP formed public relations, voter-surveying and campaign-strategy

committees last year to get a jump on this election year.

First Prime Minister Ung Huot's Populism party is also fired up to get its name into

voters' minds, not surprising considering Ung Huot's previous success as Funcinpec

campaign director in the 1993 election.

Populism is considering everything from billboards to television commercials to advertisements

in the foreign-language press, according to party officials. "At this moment

we are looking into every possibility. We are still considering our own radio station,"

said Pou Sothirak, Populism's secretary-general.

Pou Sovachana, Populism's media and public relations officer, summed up what all

fledgling parties must do to distinguish themselves from the political pack: "Get

our message out."

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