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
"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
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
"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
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
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."