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The Media: From Rags to Riches

The Media: From Rags to Riches

Since UNTAC began its mission in mid-March last year, its Information and Education

unit has closely monitored the rapid emergence of a private, if not entirely independent,

Cambodian media. As UNTAC prepares to pull out, the plethora of new newspapers and

television stations find themselves in a delicate position; striving to win readers

with bolder stories but aware that the new authorities are beginning to exert pressure

to rein them in. The following report is an overview of the situation by the Information/

Education unit in the wake of May's election.

Toward the end of 1992, at the time that the UNTAC Information Division initially

attempted to create a media association, the most conspicuous obstacle to its formation

was the fact that there was little that could be called an "independent"

media: what media outlets existed were situated firmly within the administrative

frameworks of one or another political party or faction-which, despite the Paris

Agreements, remained hostile to one another-and there was not even sufficient neutral

ground for an association to elect officers; individual members of the media, however

much at one level they might "want" to, could not sufficiently forget the

political networks they were bound to work together for common goals as journalists.

The media in Phnom Penh at this time was dominated by the State of Cambodia media

organs of press, radio, and television. Political divisions still to some extent

followed geographical lines: KPNLF, and the Partie of Democratic Kampuchea had radio

facilities broadcasting from Thailand or near the Thai border, and FUNCINPEC had

a bulletin published on the border (aimed in part at overseas supporters). The different

parties were only beginning to publish bulletins in Phnom Penh (although the oldest

of these, the KPNLF Weekly Bulletin, had been coming out since the previous January).

The few publications that could be called independent still occupied a peripheral

position for the average Cambodian. Santepheap, which started around April, 1992,

is significant in that it does not have any overt formal ties to any state or political

organization-although its "independence" did not mean it was neutral. Rumored

to be receiving financial support from high-ranking CPP officials, it took a militantly

pro-SOC/CPP position-sometimes taking extreme stands which prominent SOC/CPP figures

supported but did not want to be linked to officially.

More truly economically independent were the two English language newspapers, the

Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Times, both for-profit institutions which started publication

in July 1992. Cambodia Times, a well-financed Malaysian venture, printed in Kuala

Lumpur and flown in to Phnom Penh, began publishing a Khmer-language edition in November,

1992. This Khmer-language edition, more sickly edited than the other Cambodian newspapers,

and using color photographs, attracted a lot of attention when it first started (although

this has waned as other newspapers have appeared on the horizon and the paper's pro-SOC

leaning became obvious). When the paper first started, it was in a position to offer

salaries which attracted journalists and computer staff away from other papers-to

the distress of their editors. The pattern that Cambodia Times set-of an internationally-financed

newspaper which was able to attract staff, readership, and advertisers-and which

turned out to be less neutral than it initially seemed-would be repeated again when

Reasmey Kampuchea came on the scene.

Three significant trends since the beginning of the year together help explain the

fact that by the time of the elections Cambodian media seemed to be playing a very

different ball game-1) the rise of a Phnom Penh media associated with political parties-in

particular, FUNCINPEC; 2) the growth of internationally financed media-in the form

of a new television station and a newspaper-both Thai financed; and 3) the proliferation

of small independent newspapers. These three tends relate to the same economic and

political developments in the country-the conversion to market economy and the establishment

of a multi-party political system, which were at least the stated goals of all the

political parties. The rise of an independent media was more a political phenomena

than it seemed at first blush-since the "independent" media (both small-scale

Cambodian ventures and internationally financed institutions) often had political

agendas or were allowed to exist because of agreements to tote a political line.

Most of the actual political party bulletins began publishing before the beginning

of the year; except, perhaps, for the KPNLF Weekly Bulletin, they tended to in effect

constitute campaign materials rather than journalism per se. They had limited circulation;

sometimes, even in the case of the FUNCINPEC bulletin,there were not enough copies

issued to distribute to all the party offices in the provinces. In practice the bulletins

tended not to be something that people sat and read in their homes but something

to be posted on bulletin boards outside of party offices. Nevertheless, the bulletins

had their impact on the more traditional field of the media as a symbolic statement

of the multiplicity of political voices now possible. Of all the parties in opposition

to the CPP it is perhaps only FUNCINPEC which can truly be said, by the time of the

elections, to have created a media network comparable in any way to that of State

of Cambodia-with the appearance, right before the election, of a newspaper and two

different youth bulletins (different in tone than the more cut and dry party bulletins.)

More importantly, there was at this time the creation, despite State of Cambodia

attempts to block them, of a FUNCINPEC FM radio station and TV station based in Phnom

Penh. Although these stations did not have the broadcasting range of the SOC media,

their existence made a powerful statement about FUNCINPEC's power and potential for


For many months, the KPNLF Weekly Bulletin was the only media outlet produced in

Phnom Penh which dared to take a stance directly oppositional to State of Cambodia/CPP.

For a period of time FUNCINPEC's attacks on State of Cambodia were largely limited

to its press releases (a branch of journalism in its own right); the actual media

organs of the party maintained a stance of detachment. As State of Cambodia attacks

on FUNCINPEC became increasingly acrimonious, however-in particularly focusing on

the allegation that FUNCINPEC was linked to the Khmer Rouge-the FUNCINPEC media began

responding in kind-sometimes in the form of letters to FUNCINPEC radio which were

read on the air. These counter attacks often focused on allegations, similar to the

ubiquitous attacks in Democratic Kampuchea radio broadcasts, that the Phnom Penh

government was the puppet of the Vietnamese.

Many of the opposition political parties had strong anti-Vietnamese tendencies and

to one extent or another espoused positions similar to the anti-Vietnamese stance

of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea broadcast regularly from the border; this evidences

itself early on in inflammatory articles in the KPNLF Weekly Bulletin-although they

were toned down after UNTAC objected to them. as the campaign progressed, some material

of this kind also appeared in the FUNCINPEC youth bulletin Samleng Yuvachon Khmaer.

The independent media which arose since the beginning of the year, both internationally

financed enterprises and small-scale Khmer ones, was less free from political pressure

than might ideally be the case. In conversation, Cambodians often complained that

new newspapers would start which seemed politically neutral, and then, after a few

issues, would always begin assuming inflexibly the State of Cambodia political line.

There seems to be some validity of this charge at least in the case of the largest

of the new newspapers, Koh Santepheap, Reasmey Kampuchea, and the Khmer version of

the Cambodia Times; and some of the other smaller newspapers may have modified their

editorial positions to some extent in response to pressures or bribes-although there

was certainly variation in their political position, and it is hard to distinguish

between what is a genuine political position and that produced by pressures. The

Thai-financed IBC TV, which began broadcasting during the campaign period, had a

clear pro-SOC position from the very beginning, leading some to conclude that this

stance was part of the agreement by which the station was allowed to open. Evidence

suggests that the Thai television firm specifically had links to the prominent CPP

figure Prince Norodom Chakrapong, who was often featured in their programming.

Even though the independent media may have been less politically neutral than ideally

would have been the case, its emergence nevertheless represented a real change in

the way the media worked. Although the State of Cambodia newspapers were available

for sale in Phnom Penh in a couple of government stores, they had over the years

primarily been distributed through government offices to state employees. The growth

of an independent print media in Phnom Penh corresponded to the amazing proliferation

of newsstands throughout the city-apparently similar to the large numbers of newsstands

which had existed prior to 1975-and the actual sale of the independent papers was

essential to their continued existence in a way that it had not been for with the

state organs of media for many years. Reports on crime (which had made the State

of Cambodia police newspaper Nokorbal Pracheachon so popular) and sensationalistic

love stories (occasionally semi-pornograpic) were standard fare in the new newspapers,

and may have had more to do in determining which newspapers sold well than their

political positions. Some of the new smaller newspapers assumed the names of newspapers

which had existed prior to 1975-underlining the notion that the new era represented

a return to the past.

Although some Cambodians complained that the political bias of the new newspapers

was no better than the bias that had come before, there was in fact a significant

difference simply in the fact that, because they were nominally independent, the

new newspapers could cover events involving a number of parties. This contrasted

with the situation as late as the end of 1992, when journalists associated with State

of Cambodia, on the one hand, and the opposition parties, on the other, were saying

they did not feel they could even enter the state or party offices of the opposing

faction to conduct interviews in the course of their journalistic work-for fear it

would be interpreted as political betrayal. Whatever the degree of bias of the new

independent newspapers, they had a certain freedom which allowed some kinds of news

to be covered which had not been covered before.

When the Thai-financed newspaper Reasmey Kampuchea began being published in April,

it had a strong impact on the print media. It was published daily, used color, had

a more sophisticated layout than other papers, and yet, as Cambodians often pointed

out, was being sold for the same price as other newspapers. The editor, Pen Samitthy,

one of the more talented Cambodian editors, came from Cambodian People's Party municipality

newspaper Phnom Penh. Reasmey Kampuchea was able to pay much higher salaries than

a government newspaper, and some of his staff at Phnom Penh, as well as experienced

journalists from a number of other papers, left their jobs to join the paper. Other

newspapers have complained that it was difficult to compete with the new newspaper.

The impact was particularly dramatic in the case of the State of Cambodia police

newspaper Nokorbal Pracheachon, which for many months had grown in popularity-because

it was the most politically daring of the State of Cambodia newspapers and because

as a police newspaper it was in a position to cover salacious crime stories which

attracted wide readership; circulation fell drastically when the new Reasmey Kampuchea,

less closely identified with the state began, covering the same themes on a daily


Although, like Koh Santepheap and the Khmer edition of Cambodia Times, Reasmey Kampuchea

was initially perceived as neutral, it took a strong pro-CPP stand during the election

campaign and after the elections it supported CPP allegations that the elections

were not fair. Although some Cambodians complained in conversation about the bias

of the paper, it continued to be widely read.

The arrival on the scene of Reasmey Kampuchea was similar to the arrival on the scene

of the Khmer edition of Cambodia Times; it was in a position to dominate the scene

because of the investment funds backing it from overseas-and technological advantages

it had in being printed overseas. At the present time, it seems likely that the impact

of Reasmey Kampuchea will be more far reaching than that of the Cambodia Times-because

it is a daily newspaper and because, with a Cambodian editor and Khmer sensibility,

it is perceived as more truly in tune with Cambodian tastes. It is not clear to what

extent it is really making a profit as of yet.

IBC-TV, also Thai-financed, has a greater broadcasting range than TV Kampuchea, and

has, like Reasmey Kampuchea, become very popular very quickly. Officials at TVK say

that there has been no problems of staff leaving to work for IBC TV, but they are

sensitive to the fact that the new television station has been able to attract kinds

of advertisers that it has not.

During the actual election all broadcast media, in accordance with electoral regulations,

refrained from political broadcasting, and in the wake of the elections the station

never returned to the pitch of acrimony reached during the campaign period.

All the political party bulletins which started in the period before the elections

have now stopped publication. In a newspaper interview with newly appointed Minister

of Information Khieu Kanharith, he stated that FUNCINPEC TV and radio could not continue

as the stations of a political party, but would have to become private stations.

The elimination of media outlets which are official party organs seems to represent

policy or a gentlemen's agreement among the parties. The CPP official party newspaper

Pracheachon is also becoming a private paper. (Officials have confirmed reports that

BLDP has brought equipment to Phnom Penh to create its own radio station; it is not

clear yet whether this will have to become private.)

The changes within the government following the election leave the State of Cambodia

media in a precarious position; their editorial stances have been extremely cautious

and neutral as they wait to see what the future holds for them (as perhaps is true

of the Cambodian media now more generally-it worth nothing that FUNCINPEC radio and

TV have also refrained from criticism of other parties.) State of Cambodia radio,

the government news agency, and the police newspaper, have all changed their names.

Phnom Penh newspaper has stopped publication-it could not really survive the loss

of its editor to Reasmey Kampuchea and its declining ability to pay its staff a living

wage. While the newspaper has officially only shut down temporarily, most outside

observers conclude the move is permanent. Khieu Kanharith told UNTAC information

representatives that the only remaining government newspaper would be Kampuchea.

Since Khieu Kanharith was closely associated with Kampuchea for many years, the fact

that he has been appointed Minister of Information will probably serve to strengthen

the newspaper-which has tended to be weak since he was removed as its editor in 1990.

Ominously, some newspapers-most conspicuously the new newspaper Utdam Kate Khmaer,

but also some newspapers previously associated with SOC/CPP, Koh Santepheap and Santepheap,

have begun taking a more clear anti-Vietnamese stance than would have been possible

before the elections.


UNTAC itself has been a player in the changes that have taken place in the media.

Information/Education Division radio and television programming came to assume a

quite important role to average Cambodian listeners and viewers as well as initiating

new types of programming which were imitated by other stations. The Information/Education

Control Unit also played a role, by an on going dialogue with the Cambodian media

in which it attempted topromote basic principles of press freedom and journalistic


It would be nice to think of the developments in the Cambodian media as representing

an opening up to the market economy which at the same time represents an opening

up to principles of the free press which UNTAC has promoted. The truth is probably

more complicated. An economic change has taken place which it is impossible to reverse.

In the short run, this seems to have produced a multiplicity of voices in the media-but

the survival of newspapers may be an issue. It will not be easy for small-scale Cambodian-financed

media to survive. There is certainly a risk right now that the traditions of Cambodian

journalism which have grown out of the socialist years may be being too facilily

discarded-instead of being used as a base for the creation of new institutions. There

is also the ongoing risk of government intervention. The editor of one of the larger

newspapers recently said in conversation that the provisional government was beginning

to press down on the press in ways which hadn't happened before; it remains to be

seen how harsh or widespread this kinds of pressure will be. Some of the freedom

of the press being enjoyed now can be lost as a new government consolidates its position

of power. Whatever future the Cambodian press builds for itself, it will be a slow

and complicated process.


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