It's hard to avoid Fresh News these days. From last year’s major breaking news about the arrest warrant for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to its daily exclusives on new government orders, the site has for all intents and purposes evolved into the state’s unofficial news agency over the past two years.
Almost no one else breaks major government news anymore, and no other outlet can boast the same sources inside the government. The site posts almost 100 articles a day, many simply verbatim ministerial decrees published without commentary or hints about sourcing.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has also routinely praised Fresh News, which began its life as a barebones smartphone app in May 2014, for its speed and the tenor of its articles, and has more than once granted the outlet exclusive interviews – a rarity for the premier since the late 1990s.
Yet with access comes constraints, and any readers who restricted their news consumption to Fresh News would likely come away with a perspective about government officials and the opposition party peculiarly similar to that promoted by the Cambodian People’s Party.
“Fresh News is a CPP-aligned news service, so they don’t have freedom to report about sensitive issues of the government. They can only act as the mouthpiece of the government and the powerful people,” said Sun Narin, a former manager at VOD Hot News, a competitor.
Narin, who now runs the Phnom Penh Today site, said that while Fresh News had earned its reputation as the best source of state releases, its fawning over the CPP and attempts to promote scandals about the opposition left some questioning the site’s motives.
“People don’t trust that news service when it comes to political issues,” Narin said, explaining that he believed Fresh News was more interested in keeping its powerful sources happy than its readers informed. “This is contradictory to ethical journalism.”
Indeed, the site’s coverage of government officials and Hun Sen’s family tends to focus on their efforts to travel around the country and resolve crises, with coverage of opposition officials painting them as criminals and sexual deviants intent on tricking the people.
In the past week, its coverage of the CPP has included stories titled: Hun Many visits 153 families in Baseth district who were victim to violent winds, Hun Manet: ‘The reform of the education sector in Cambodia has made students strive to learn well’, and Cambodian citizens in Korea support and thank the Cambodian government, which always thinks about the wellbeing of those who migrate.
Its coverage in that time about the Cambodia National Rescue Party, meanwhile, has focused on aggressive pieces about late former prime minister Pen Sovann, including one titled: Reader’s view – the opposition is politically exploiting Pen Sovann’s corpse.
Another article, which was pinned to the top of the website for an entire day, quoted an anonymous Facebook page that accused the former premier – who became an opposition lawmaker at the 2013 election – of being a pedophile who had died because of his sexual activities.
“Pen Sovann fell into sickness and died because he had many women and young girls,” Fresh News quoted the anonymous page as saying, accusing the 80-year-old of being mostly fond of “the young girls who worked as his servants, as well as many more massage girls”.
In July, Fresh News also published a letter describing the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily as foreigners “plunging Cambodians into a bonfire of war” after the two papers – unlike Fresh News – reported on a Global Witness report detailing Hun Sen’s family’s business empire. It was accompanied by repurposed Nazi propaganda showing the papers decapitating Cambodia.
Four months before, it had become the main news site pushing out dozens of recordings allegedly of deputy opposition Kem Sokha’s talking to mistresses on the phone – an issue aggressively pursued by the government until Sokha was sentenced to five months in jail two months ago for failing to appear for summonses related to the case.
Yet the site’s desire to defend the ruling party is in many ways a strange turn given the history of its co-founders, one of whom was a founder of the country’s last remaining opposition newspaper – Moneaksekar Khmer – until it folded two years ago. Soy Sopheap – now a known “fixer” for Hun Sen – has for the past 10 years also run the Deum Ampil site, where Fresh News’s other co-founder, Lim Cheavutha, served as website manager until he had the idea to launch a smartphone news app.
The pair launched Fresh News as an app for Android phones in May 2014, later expanding to Apple iOS phones. However, last November, after another news outlet described Sopheap as the “owner” of Fresh News, Cheavutha expelled Sopheap from the site. The pair have not spoken since.
“I don’t leave from someone, but if they leave, I don’t chase after them,” Sopheap said of his expulsion in an interview last week, before declining to comment any further about Cheavutha. “I don’t want to say anything bad,” he said.
Yet Sopheap, who says that he remains close to Hun Sen, said his philosophy at Fresh News and Deum Ampil was always to not shy away from claims he was biased toward the government.
“I never argue with people when they say I am pro-CPP or pro-government or pro-Hun Sen. I say that they are right,” Sopheap said. He added that his news supported the CPP over the CNRP because the party has more seats in the National Assembly.
“It’s because I support them that I have freedom to write what I want,” he continued. “I never criticise government policy – I support Hun Sen, so that means I support government policy and I just criticise the individuals. This is the role of journalists.”
“I criticise the individuals who do not abide by government policy,” he added. “That is why Hun Sen supports me – because I dare to criticise individuals.”
Cheavutha declined to comment on the reasons for Sopheap’s expulsion but maintained that his site had always maintained independence from the CPP.
“I would like to give no comment about this issue,” Cheavutha said of Sopheap, before describing Fresh News as both financially and editorially independent.
“We are 100 percent independent, because we are a private institution and we survive completely on advertising, and do not rely on any officials. We feed our staff, provide their salaries and run as a business.”
Cheavutha added there was no secret to how Fresh News had monopolised breaking news about the government since its launch two and half years ago. “To receive good news, we keep good sources,” he said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said he did not think it was necessarily a bad thing that Fresh News had grown so close to the government, with the site becoming important for independent news outlets.
“After Fresh News gets the documents from the government, independent media outlets like the Phnom Penh Post or Radio Free Asia or Voice of Democracy can focus on the other side of the story,” said Chhean Nariddh. “So Fresh News fills a gap.”
He said an awareness had likely developed among many CPP officials that they could provide scoops to Fresh News without risking critical inquiry.
“Their editor has a relationship with the ruling party politicians,” he explained. “Sometimes they do not know if it is safe to release their information to journalists, but they seem to feel that their information is in safe hands if it is released to Fresh News.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the ruling party indeed appreciated the emergence of Fresh News over the past two years, but said that any criticism of the bent of their coverage was undeserved. “It is their individual rights as citizens,” Eysan said, adding that political bias in media was often in the eye of the beholder. “I have the view that the Phnom Penh Post is not independent,” he said.