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
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
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...,"
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,"
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.