"In pursuit of journalism because of corruption and anarchy in society, because
society is in darkness" is the logo of Teukdei neong Mnus (Earth and Man).
Since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords lifted the shackles on the local press,
a fierce newspaper war has raged on the streets of Phnom Penh.
In addition to dozens of party newspapers and bulletins, there are six private Khmer-language
newspapers which battle for readers with graphic tales of crime and corruption. Few
of the newspapers make a distinction between editorial and news content and lurid
pictures lifted from foreign magazines are given prominent play.
The first newspaper to seriously test the new press freedoms was Koh Santepheap (Island
of Peace) which splashed a bold story about corruption among State of Cambodia officials
on the front page of its launch edition in January.
"We report the reality that exists," said Meas Boret, deputy editor of
Koh Santepheap which comes out three times a week. While the four-page paper has
yet to dare go to the root of the alleged scandals it uncovers, moving the issue
of corruption to the front page the paper won popularity and its circulation soared
from 20,000 to 40,000 copies in its first week.
"We are doing much better than the others because we are neutral," said
Koh Santepheap is actually a revival of an earlier newspaper of the same name which
closed down just two days before the Khmer Rouge overtook Phnom Penh on Apr. 17,
1975. It was resurrected by its former editors with an initial investment of U.S.
Thang Than, editor-in-chief of Samleng Apyeakret (Voice of Neutrality), also feels
confident in the future of his publication, citing his 15,000 print run which sells
out 80 percent of the time. Than put U.S. $4,000 into the business. He claimed his
paper was eating into Koh Santepheap 's readership because of its neutral position.
"The attitude of Koh Santepheap is not stable," he said. "We don't
write what we are told to write, but what we see. Our main target is to expand and
strengthen the knowledge of the readers," he added.
Despite their claims of neutrality, much skepticism remains among a readership used
to the press being used as a political tool.
Huot Hak, a student of the medical institute, said "Koh Santepheap is losing
popularity because it inclines towards the government. The party's paper is for the
party itself, nobody reads it now."
"I like to read Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia) because it has a lot of
domestic, foreign and scientific news. I like it because of the factual of reporting."
Other readers complain the early market leader has become dull and redundant.
"I thought Koh Santepheap was the first to pave the way for the other [papers]
because of its outspoken content. Now I don't read it because the stories are boring
and repetitious," said Huot Vuthy, a student.
A trader who declined to be named also shared the same view about the four-page papers.
He said that initially he read Koh Santepheap because it dared to criticize the Phnom
Penh administration. "Now I don't need it anymore because Rasmei Kampuchea is
more professional and has color. It costs 400 riels like the others and comes out
daily," he said.
Rasmei Kampuchea , a 12 page broad sheet printed in Bangkok is the first independent
publication to go daily. Since its arrival on the newsstands early last month it
has shaken up the local market. Newsstand vendors said sales of the more sensational
four-page papers have declined.
The paper is attractively laid it and sports a colorful mast head and pictures.
Articles on the front page focus on Cambodia's current problems and the most important
international events. Inner pages are divided into sections for internal and international
news, and for social, economic and entertainment stories. The paper hires more than
40 professional people-half of whom are based in Bangkok-who defected from the SOC
news agency. The paper has three graphic designers in Bangkok who do the layout of
the stories sent by fax machines from Phnom Penh. The printed paper is flown into
the country in the afternoon.
"Believe me, the profit never comes from sales of the paper alone. Advertising
is the sources of the profit. At the moment we are trying to change the mentality
of the readers and we'll put the ads in later," said Penn Pheng, the paper's
editor-in-chief. He said that the company had expected to lose money for the first
six months when it decided to set up the price of 400 riels per copy. He said the
paper had proved popular because of it quality and content.
"We sell 23,000 copies everyday. Not a single copy is returned to us,"
he said, adding that 6,000 copies are shipped to the provinces. He said his one concern
was that the general situation after the election might cause investors to delay
plans to advertise in the paper.
"We have received a number of proposals for adds though we have not yet dealt
with them seriously," he said.
Pheng said the company hoped to soon bring in its own machinery and begin printing
in Cambodia within the next six months. He did not reveal the capital outlay in the
business, but said the company was looking to expand.
"We want to have correspondents in all provinces. We will link them with the
Modem machines so as to make the business go faster."
He added that the number of employees might be expanded to 1,000 when Rasmei Kampuchea
's printing house is set up in Phnom Penh.