In English language media both here and abroad, news of the National Assembly’s decision to expel all opposition parliamentarians caused uproar.
But many readers of the biggest Cambodian news outlets would likely be surprised to hear the expulsion happened at all.
An examination by the Post of eight large Khmer-language media outlets revealed that only two had run stories – both relatively brief – about the controversial expulsion.
In lieu of reporting on the controversial decision, the stories that have run in recent days have focused solely on the furore surrounding opposition leader Kem Sokha’s S-21 comments.
Though the expulsion may have legally invalidated the legislature’s authority (article 76 of Cambodia’s constitution says there must be at least 120 parliamentarians; there are now only 96) the few newspapers that did mention the decision, did so only obliquely in their coverage of the parliament’s passage of its similarly controversial anti-Khmer Rouge denial bill.
“Hardly anyone wants to talk about it, even though I was at Mr Chheang Vun’s press conference [on the expulsion],” said Cambodia National Rescue parliamentarian Son Chhay, who was very publicly ejected from the conference after Vun said he had lost his right to speak inside the National Assembly building.
“I don’t know if they’re scared or under some influence directly from the ruling party, but I think there is some system of control by the government,” he added, noting a similar media blackout surrounding an earlier opposition rally criticising the National Election Committee. “It is no accident – it is an authoritarian state.”
Drawing parallels to the same blackout, Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said the silence was indicative of both explicit censorship from the government and a widespread culture of self-censorship.
“All the pro-government outlets, particularly the radio and TV stations, have maintained their stance not to broadcast anything about the opposition,” he said.
“For newspapers, I think they are more independent from the government, but I think they try self-censorship to not broadcast about the opposition rally,” he added. “As for the government-controlled media, I think it is in their policies.”
The self-censorship had the potential to undermine Cambodian democracy, Chhean Nariddh continued, but was understandable given the tendency of the media to view itself as a victim rather than as an agent of change.
However, in spite of the potential short term benefits of appeasing the government, he warned, outlets were doing themselves a disservice in the end.
“I think we understand these outlets exercising self-censorship for their security and safety but, in the long run, I think they wind up hurting themselves,” he said, noting media companies’ need for public support.
“[Cambodians] have been quite selective in what kinds of news products they like to consume, so if a media outlet does not try to be independent in trying to produce a media product that satisfies the public, I think in the long run they will lose the support.”
Pen Samitthy, CEO of Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper and its sister site, CEN – one of the outlets that did cover the expulsion – said he felt duty-bound to run the story.
“I think that publishing the case of 29 parliamentarians from SRP, HRP and NRP being withdrawn from their positions and docked their salary is very important to the people because the voters who supported them to be their representatives need to know about the development of the political situation, and they will reconsider on how to take the next step,” said Samitthy, who is also the president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists.
But, despite the relative silence, Chhay said the opposition was accustomed to receiving less media attention, and that the impact would be negligible, given that Cambodians “have all suffered directly from this government”.
Chhean Nariddh seemingly agreed, saying that the story was bound to spread anyway.
“As the Cambodian saying goes, ‘when an elephant dies, you cannot use a small casket for the body of the dead elephant’,” he said.
“The story is too big to be hidden; it is too big to be ignored, even by the public.”