Facebook has, for the first time, overtaken television as the main source of news for Cambodian people – a trend that analysts say could threaten the ruling party’s grip on the Kingdom’s media coverage.
In an annual report focused on mobile phone use in Cambodia released by the Asia Foundation and Open Institute yesterday, the most important source of news for 30 percent of Cambodians was found to be Facebook and the internet, followed closely by television (29 percent), word of mouth (23 percent) and radio (15 percent).
The trend comes alongside a marked increase in smartphone ownership, with 48 percent of Cambodians owning one this year – more than doubling the percentage of just three years ago – and the fact that 76 percent of phones owned are now Khmer script-enabled.
The Asia Foundation’s country director Silas Everett said the study showed some “really significant trends for Cambodia”.
“The increase in reading and writing, coupled with going actively on Facebook and getting information and news, suggests a more engaged citizenry in Cambodia, though I wouldn’t necessarily say more informed,” Everett said.
Ou Virak, head of independent think tank Future Forum, said the trend would come as no surprise to the CPP – which continues to dominate broadcast media – but he predicted the party would still exert considerable pressure on Khmer independent news outlets as their stories reached an ever-increasing audience online.
“I think Hun Sen does see the internet and Facebook as a threat, for two reasons. First, I think that the opposition could potentially benefit from a higher number of people having access to these mediums,” Virak said.
“[Another] thing on Hun Sen’s mind is colour revolution, so even if the opposition might be seen as neutralised and the CPP thinks it can still win the election comfortably, they might continue to see the medium as a threat and a potential tool to mobilise a grassroots movement.”
He added that television would become less relevant for news and more of a realm for entertainment. “It will not be as powerful [a form of] propaganda that influences public opinion”, he said.
Moeun Chhean Narridh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, yesterday described the growth of social media as a “democratisation” of news and said more people were able to voice their criticism of social issues in Khmer online.
“We have to encourage the government to be patient and let people express themselves in any way,” he said.
He said that while there has recently been a global outcry over “fake news”, the tilt towards social media mirrored Cambodia’s first days of press freedom in the 1990s.
“People were previously denied access to free media news, whether it was false or not, so over the years, they have had to build their media literacy and learned to distinguish between the real news and the fake news,” he said.
But if Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has previously declared himself the “e-premier”, felt threatened by social media’s potential to disrupt his party’s media message, he didn’t seem to show it yesterday when he publicly celebrated the fact that more than 19 million SIM cards are used by Cambodian people – a figure significantly higher than the population.
“That means that our people in very rural areas are using mobile phones,” he said, at an inauguration for a new Posts and Telecommunications Ministry building yesterday.
Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Tram Iv Tek said internet use had spiked dramatically, from 2.7 million in 2012 to 7.1 million in 2016.
The Asia Foundation study also found the gender gap between access to phones and information was decreasing, and that the most common app used on smartphones was not Facebook or even the camera, but the flashlight.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TOUCH SOKHA