BATTAMBANG - The Royal Government is still trying to keep television services under
tight control, mainly by bureaucratic means. But there are ways of getting around
the bureaucrats to get your voice heard, as some human rights organizations have
They are raising controversial issues of public concern through debate and educational
In a restaurant in Battambang, the television blares a fictional story featuring
Khmer Rouge soldiers in red kramas terrorizing a village. Just thirty kilometers
or so away the Khmer Rouge have been fighting for years - for real.
Everyone knows what is going on, but showing the fighting on television is not allowed,
said Samrang, a photographer from the local state-owned television station.
On the same day, the station produced a sequence about the repair of a bombed bridge
and a damaged road. The piece was ordered screened by the Ministry of Planning in
Phnom Penh, to demonstrate how the authorities are dealing with the problems in the
The station's equipment is limited: a television, a VCR, a radio and an old Russian
generator. It can only produce 10 watts of power, so the sound is hit or miss.
The station broadcasts four hours every evening. A short news bulletin is followed
by an hour's mixed news from Phnom Penh, news taped from the BBC - without payment
- news from Russia, and local news. Five videos are brought by taxi once a week from
One of the programs brought from the capital is a quiz from military headquarters,
in which two military teams dressed in their finest, sit opposite each other competing
to give the right answers to military questions.
Manuscripts and program notes at Battambang TV are handwritten, and controlled by
the local information service. The director, E Sarom, stops programs if he thinks
they will upset people. One such program was about a monk who had sex with a woman.
Sarom reasoned that people would lose respect for the monkhood if they watched it.
There are about 270,000 people in Battambang, and the potential TV audience is estimated
at 100,000. The information service guesses there are around 11,000 TV sets, and
often five families gather around one set in the rural areas.
WHILE Battambang station functions with minimal interference from the local branch
of the Ministry of Information, a very close eye is kept on the national TV station,
TVK, in Phnom Penh. Although press freedom and media pluralism is officially recognized
as basic to the new democracy, the government tries to keep television in particular
on a leash.
TVK's news director Kem Gunawadh says TVK could never broadcast items on corruption.
"The time is not right yet for this sort of issue. Cambodia has a new government,
we have only just put the war behind us, we have to understand the situation in the
country. We must consolidate national and social stability, reconstruction and the
political stability of the country."
TVK broadcasts 20 per cent news, 50 per cent educational material, 20 per cent entertainment
and 10 per cent children's programs. Gunawadh says the station also produces documentaries,
but the most recent are five or six years old. TVK hasn't been able to afford to
produce anything since then.
TVK is supported by the Cambodian People's Party, the CPP. TV9 is supported by Funcinpec;
TV5 is run by the army and private Thai interests; and there is also a new private
channel called Apsara.
Some program-makers have been able to get around the problem of censorship. A relative
novelty is television debate programs. Never before have attempts been made to create
a television "public sphere," in which experts and citizens can discuss
the government's visions and initiatives.
It is not journalists but local human rights organizations that are responsible for
the most important programs on TVK. One - "The Public Opinion" - is produced
by the Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID).
Twenty debates were planned for this year, but a lot of problems arose when the format
was introduced. One program on corruption featuring dissident politician Sam Rainsy
However, since programs can usually be screened, how is it that television is the
most censored media in Cambodia? KID director Lao Mong Hay says: "Our programs
do not deal with people, but with principles. We are very conscious about that. We
criticize political programs. We said, for instance, that Sam Rainsy's expulsion
from the government was anti-constitutional. The government cannot do anything against
us, when we argue on the basis of law."
Mong Hay also took part in a contest for authors, organized by The Cambodian Institute
for Human Rights. He interviewed authors on subjects specified in advance by the
government, on issues such as reconciliation, and reconstruction.
"But," he says, "the government could not prevent me from asking questions
in my own way. The Russian author Solzenitsyn once said: 'If you have one good author
in your country, the country has two governments.' I asked the authors if they agreed
with this statement. They did and answered: 'We can help the government by raising
social issues, by writing about the everyday lives of people'."
Another time, the Ministry of Justice was invited to take part. Mong Hay asked Minister
Chem Sgnuon when the Constitutional Council was due to start work.
"He said that progress had been made, but that it depended on certain factors
due for discussion by the Council of Ministers. Then I asked him: 'Do the ministers
take notice of your advice?' He didn't answer. But okay, it is a free country. You
can ask questions, but you are also free not to answer," Mong Hay said.
Critical local journalists argue that the debate programs have little to do with
real discussion. They say Khmer people are not used to tackling conflicts and asking
questions. Besides, they are shy. And government officials just avoid answering if
they don't want to. Consequently, the programs get rather boring. However, even these
criticisms stress the importance of the fact that questions are being asked at all.
Visuth Um, of the Cambodian Human Rights Institute, produces a weekly educational
One actually focused on corruption. Visuth said the issue was approached indirectly.
The producers asked a Khmer-American economist to paint a picture of what Cambodia
would look like with a clean economy.
"In this way we tell people what they already know, that corruption is going
on. But at the same time we look at strategies that could create a sound economy.
This gives people the idea that things could be different, and that there are some
things worth fighting for."
The reasons why such programs can be aired at all, according to Visuth, is because
there are not enough employees at the Ministry of Information to check all programs,
and partly because certain people within the Ministry want to promote debate, as
long as it's not too confrontational.
Visuth continues: "The important thing is to present messages in a way that
is not too much at variance with official regulations. The main aim of the national
channels is reconciliation. The message is non-violence. The means it is a cocktail
of Buddhist lifestyle, human rights and censorship."
(Karin Bo Bergquist is a Danish journalist and student of communications at the Roskilde