N EWSPAPER publishers Nguon Nuon and Thong Uypang have much in common. Both are
veteran journalists and claim to have employed one another before. Both are
political - Noun is a Funcinpec member, and Uypang is widely seen as
pro-Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP). Long-time rivals, their public animosity
recently plummeted to new depths.
A Sept 5 headline of Uypang's Koh
Santepheap (Island of Peace) newspaper read: "Buddy Nuon is walking towards his
The paper appealed: "Please don't let Island of Peace see
the monkey-looking face [of Nuon] in court again," a reference to government
prosecutions of Nuon.
The Sept 6 edition of Nuon's Damneung Pelpreuk
(Morning News) described Uypang's wife with offensive and unrepeatable
The next day a grenade exploded outside Nuon's house.
Island of Peace blamed Nuon himself for the blast. The newspaper
insinuatingly complemented Nuon for "not having died yet", and for being "as
mighty as Soeun of the Earth" - referring to the nickname of a soldier accused
but acquitted of killing an Island of Peace correspondent.
Nuon, the day after the grenade blast, tried to reassure visitors that he was
more upset at the disruption to his publication than the attack
"Had it not been for the attack, today's [Sept 8] edition could
have been noisier than the grenade explosion," he said.
at Wat Phnom News and Samleng Polrath Khmer (Voice of Khmer Citizens), a similar
war of words was being waged.
The central piece of the public argument
appeared to be Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, constantly criticized by Wat Phnom
News publisher Meas Dararith and defended by Chea Song of Voice of Khmer
It culminated in a Sept 12, black-bordered photograph in Wat
Phnom News of Chea Song. The text rambled about Song pleading to hell for
pictures of Yuon (Vietnamese) prostitutes for his paper, suggesting hell might
send a casket for him instead and finished: "This is the first warning for the
old dog barking."
Such vitriolic and occasionally senseless abuse is by
no means limited to journalists attacking other journalists. A more favorite
target is the government.
A headline suggesting that one of the Prime
Ministers was "three times more stupid a day" than his co-Prime Minister earned
a Voice of Khmer News editor a 12-month jail sentence, currently under
Khmer Ideal newspaper publisher Thun Bunly recently had his paper
ordered closed for a series of articles which, among other things, described one
of the Prime Ministers' faces as being "thicker than a blade of an
There is an abundance of other, more abusive examples in the Khmer
While journalists defend their right to freedom of expression -
and human rights groups being strongly critical of government action against
journalists - there is no doubt the press is doing itself no
"What we are seeing is that the free press is being killed or is
committing suicide because of journalists' irresponsibility," said a Rasmei
With more than 40 Khmer newspapers vying for
readership, many view sensationalism as their key to success, whether it be
printing pictures of dead bodies, pornography or editorial diatribes.
"Many say 'Oh, what's the point of respecting a code of ethics if sales
of my paper are going to be bad?'," said Khmer Journalists Association (KJA)
vice-president Tat Ly Hok.
Other journalists say that, as well as
sensationalism, newspapers are basically paid - either in money, protection, or
political favors - to pursue political agendas.
Tat Ly Hok conceded that
little has changed despite the training of hundreds of reporters in
foreign-funded courses. He argued that even if reporters know their jobs, their
editors and publishers often dictate what is published to suit their own
"They [reporters] have got a good sense of the
five Ws and the H [who, what, when, where, why and how] but they are under the
influence of their publishers who are very politicized," says Hok, deputy editor
of the government-owned Kampuchea newspaper.
"Everybody tends to believe
what he thinks is right. It is very difficult to reach a consensus and in the
end the exercise of freedom turns into anarchy."
Chum Kanal, president of
the League of Cambodian Journalists (LCJ), said journalists were only alienating
readers. "For example, opinion articles are now piling up and people are tired
"We must review ourselves. I think the reason why we cannot
become the fourth [branch of] power is because we are not accountable for
KJA Secretary-General So Naro agreed the public was being poorly
served. "It's OK to say the government treats journalists badly, but we must
also say that journalists treat the public badly too."
Naro said he
believed in the future of professional journalism in Cambodia, and said that the
government's new press law was necessary to do what journalistic training had
not. The law should not be aimed at restricting freedom of the press, he said,
but at "limiting negative impacts caused by journalists and encouraging
professionalism, responsibility, impartiality and social justice".
foreign human rights observers and journalists worry that the Khmer press is
playing into the hands of those in the government who favor a tightly-controlled
Some allege government interference - particularly with the
formation of the LCJ, a breakaway from the KJA - and an official reluctance to
prosecute those pro-government newspapers who appear just as bad as the
anti-government ones regularly prosecuted.
With three journalists killed
last year, and more than a dozen prosecutions, suspensions or closures of
newspapers in the past 12 months, the freedom of the press is at
Meantime, there seems to be no let up in sight for the
inter-newspaper squabbling which has become regular fare in the Khmer press.