Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Easier to be ethical with money in your pocket

Easier to be ethical with money in your pocket

Easier to be ethical with money in your pocket

Khmer newspapers are queuing up where the money's greener in the run up to the elections.
Huw Watkin reports.

SHIFTING allegiances within Cambodia's local press have exposed political patronage,

corruption and extortion to a level which insiders describe as "unprecedented"

and "out of control".

According to several industry sources both major parties are offering large sums

of money to Khmer editors and journalists in order to buy favorable coverage and

boost their propaganda apparatus in the run up to commune and national elections.

Khmer journalists are now frequently seen queuing for "payments" of between

four and $20 following press conferences called by politicians and prominent businessmen,

and at least two former "opposition" papers have changed their editorial

line in recent weeks.

In its Sept 23 edition Wat Phnom - previously associated with the Khmer Nation Party

(KNP) and highly critical of corruption within the government - ran a stinging attack

on KNP leader Sam Rainsy and reported the party would soon self-destruct due to internal


"Sam Rainsy is not a democrat ...[He] is a neo-Nazi...," the front page

story read before going on to assert KNP was divided in a five way internal split

which was being engineered by Funcinpec.

An editorial piece which recently appeared in Sereypheap Thmei - previously edited

by Hen Vipheak who left the paper to concentrate on his work as a member of the KNP's

steering committee and who was recently jailed for defaming the co-Prime Ministers

- also has industry insiders perplexed.

The Sept 25 edition of Sereypheap Thmei ran a comment piece which praised Second

Prime Minister and CPP Vice President Hun Sen as "the most outstanding figure

within the CPP's leadership."

Referring to the CPP's efforts in boosting Cambodia's international relations through

diplomatic links, the commentary said:"...[the world] increasingly recognizes

the political ability of CPP leaders..."

One "opposition" editor, who requested anonymity, claimed both papers had

"sold out" adding thatWat Phnom's shift in editorial policy came soon after

the recent death from tuberculosis of former editor Meas Dararith.

"[Current editor] Dara Vichay was always urging Dararith to abandon the KNP

because only Dararith benefited from the patronage of Sam Rainsy. Vichay said the

paper should be aligned to the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) because they have more


"When Dararith died, Vichay took over and went to the CPP who gave him $30,000,"

the editor said.

The Post was unable to confirm the allegation asWat Phnom editor Dara Vichay was

unavailable for comment. But the suggestion his paper had joined forces with CPP

was supported by a second article in its Sept 23 edition.

That piece criticized the CPP daily Koh Santipheap for "selling out" to

Funcinpec and for accepting a $10,000 bribe from co-Interior Minister You Hockry

- whose political future remains uncertain following allegations he stole three kilograms

of drugs - in return for a favorable news story.

Wat Phnom has also asserted that Proleong Cheat had changed allegiance from CPP to

Funcinpec and had also received a bribe from You Hockry. The article further claimed

the CPP had made a mistake in previously patronizing "bad men" who supported

"high ranking officials who destroy the country".

Wat Phnom's indignant tone has surprised insiders as rumors that CPP is reviewing

the performance of editors on its payroll have been circulating in the industry for

some time.

One source claimed the CPP was withdrawing funding to several publications because

they had lost credibility with their readership.

"People are sick of reading cruel attacks on politicians...they are sick of

reading pornography and seeing pictures of dead people, they are sick of the lack

of professionalism."

A prominent Khmer editor further suggested that a recent halt in the publication

of CPP standard bearer Chakraval - a paper notorious for its explicit coverage of

crime and conflict - was the result of CPP withdrawing financial support.

In a front page editorial Chak-raval explained its decision to temporarily close

as the result of threats against its staff, but editor So Pwan declined an invitation

to discuss the issue with the Post.

However, a usually well informed source and party member said Chakraval had not been

abandoned by CPP.

"Chakraval has not lost its funding, it [remains] in the vanguard of the CPP

press. I believe the newspaper may have had some threats - it is very good at attacking

the Royal family, Funcinpec and even some members of the CPP. The paper has many

enemies...," the source said.

Political patronage and its undermining of impartiality is just one of the problems

compromising Cambodia's indigenous press and its role in contributing to the country's

social and political development. Along with other questionable practices, patronage

is encouraged by Phnom Penh's crowded newspaper market.

According to Deputy Director General of the Information Ministry Leng Sochea, approximately

125 publications have been granted ministry approval to publish since the 1993 elections.

He said, however, around half had closed leaving 50 newspapers and ten magazines

relying mostly on the revenue available through advertising in Phnom Penh.

"People think that running a newspaper is a good way to make money," he

said. "The ministry receives an average of two new requests each month from

people who want to start a newspaper - mostly they are young and inexperienced and

have the support of rich people or political parties.

"[But] there are so many newspapers it is very difficult to make money through

legitimate means and many journalists resort to blackmail - it is worse now than

ever before," Sochea said.

"We receive many complaints - there are so many it is difficult to remember

exactly how many - particularly in the provinces. Usually journalists will threaten

people with bad stories and ask for money or motorbikes."

The most recent - and most public - example of extortion involved journalists demanding

money from management at the Universal Network of Consumers Cooperation (UNCC).

UNCC - a marketing venture offering discounts and incentives to members who sign-up

new subscribers - ran into trouble after it was criticized as a sham in a broadcast

by a popular talk show host.

According to sources at UNCC, soon after the broadcast journalists began "queuing

up" at the organization, demanding money in return for editorial silence on

the cooperative's problems.

However, several sources confirmed that extortion is often unnecessary as an "unspoken

understanding" between journalists and newsmakers is widespread.

The practice recently resulted in an unseemly and very public slinging match between

former colleagues at Sangkrous Khmer after one refused to share a "gift"

of money from senior provincial authorities in Siem Reap and Battambang.

As reported previously in the Post , the issue came to a head in the June 24-25 issue

of Sangkrous Khmer when the paper published a front page story about a former reporter

titled:" Dot Sadeth is a Dishonest Person". In its next issue the paper

ran a second front page article asking the Information Minister to stop Sadeth working

as a journalist.

Sadeth responded by taking his former employer to court and revealed the dispute

centered on "gifts" he had received totaling $120.

After the editor at Sangkrous Khmer discovered Sadeth had spent most of the money

he confiscated Sadeth's press card and made him sign an undertaking he would not

use the paper's name for his own interests.

But the two had a further falling out and Sadeth was fired after he was accused of

extorting money from an illegal gambling ring in Tuol Kork.

Sadeth later claimed this was a strange reason to dismiss him as the paper often

accepted bribes from illegal gambling operations in return for ignoring their activities.

According to the Information Ministry's Leng Sochea, blackmail is a growing problem

in the local press. ThePost is aware of at least one senior Funcinpec official who

was confronted with a story in which he was described as Khmer Rouge. The story was

not published after the official handed over an undisclosed sum of money.

"The system now is to attack 'Mr A' and then ask him for money to stop the attacks.

I have heard of blackmail demands of between $1,000 and $10,000 dollars...,"

Sochea said.

According to Tath Lyhok, co-President of the Khmer Journalists Association (KJA),

the problems of corruption, patronage and blackmail have theirs roots in both financial

and moral bankruptcy.

"Before Lon Nol, Khmers were very moral people. After the war and genocide,

morality is very low - people will do anything to earn money. When I was young I

was helped by strong family values, but today there are many hypocrites," Lyhok


"Its a very big worry for the free press. The purpose of journalists is to attack

corruption, but if a newspaper is corrupt, how can it fight corruption?... but its

difficult because the editors are so politicized. We hope the young generation will

be better after study - we always talk about ethics and morality [in courses run

by the KJA], but even after teaching some [journalists] still take bribes.

"But what can be done? The majority of Chamber journalists are very poor...many

people see newspapers as a good way to make money because many leaders need the newspapers

- you write [good things] about me and attack my enemies and I will pay you."

Pin Samkhon, also a co-President of the KJA, said the average salary for a Khmer

journalist was between $50 and $200. He said salaries were paid from sales of publications

and small amounts of advertising from a market which he described as "very tight".

According to Leng Sochea the advertising market is dominated by the daily Reaksmei

Kampuchea which captures about half of the advertising dollars available to the press

in Phnom Penh. The remainder is shared by close to 60 publications.

The market is further restricted by the influence of politics with advertisers conscious

of the potential for trouble if they are seen as being associated - and therefore

as supporting newspapers which are critical of the rich and powerful.

"A year ago, when the KJA split and the League of Cambodian Journalists formed,

I had an advertiser withdraw. He paid me the money but he didn't want his company's

name associated with me because of all of the politics involved with the split,"

said Pin Samkhon.

Ou Savann, the editor ofVoice of Khmer Youth - a paper known for its anti-government

line and its association with the KNP - said advertisers didn't spend money on his

paper because they feared being identified with its political line.

"We only get about ten dollars from advertising in each issue - we have to rely

on sales to pay our staff.

"Newspaper sellers buy the paper for 390 riels - we print about 3500 copies

but only sell about 2000. My salary from the newspaper is only $40 dollars a month,"

Savann said.

However, he denied he supplemented his salary through unethical practices and said

KNP leader Sam Rainsy no longer supported his paper.

"The KNP doesn't have enough money."

In a bid to solve the many problems undermining the press, the Information Ministry

is drafting a sub decree to the press law which, according to Leng Sochea, could

be passed by the Council of Ministers late in October or early November.

The key provisions of the sub decree - which apply only to new publications - include

requirements that editors have qualifications from recognized journalism programs,

that editors be at least 55 years of age and that any newspaper has a minimum capital

base of $5000.

Within the industry the jury is still out on whether the sub decree is an appropriate

measure to address existing problems - most of the players who talked to the Post

expressed concern that it could be used to restrict freedom of expression.

And, they agreed, sticking to a code of ethics is easier when people have food in

their stomachs and money in their pockets.


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