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Watchdog finds political influence in media sector

A man reads a newspaper at a stall in Phnom Penh yesterday, which saw the launch of the Cambodian Media Ownership Monitor, aimed at providing transparency in the sector.
A man reads a newspaper at a stall in Phnom Penh yesterday, which saw the launch of the Cambodian Media Ownership Monitor, aimed at providing transparency in the sector. Pha Lina

Watchdog finds political influence in media sector

The pluralism and transparency of Cambodia’s media are under threat by a lack of regulation and politically affiliated media companies’ domination of the sector, a new monitoring project has warned.

The Cambodian Media Ownership Monitor (MOM), launched in Phnom Penh yesterday, is the initiative of international press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and was conducted in collaboration with the Cambodian Center for Independent Media.

The online database details the ownership and reach of the country’s major media outlets, finding that television is both the most popular sector and the sector where audiences were most concentrated under just a handful of outlets.

Overall, Cambodia’s top four media corporations and owners are named as the Royal Group; Ing Chhay Nguon, owner of the TV station Hang Meas; Hun Mana, Bayon TV owner and daughter of Prime Minister Hun Sen; and ABC Radio proprietor, Sen Bunveng – players who together reach some 84 per cent of the nation’s audience, with significant potential influence on public opinion.

At least 10 of the 28 Cambodian media owners assessed were also found to be either on the government payroll, advisers to the Cambodian People’s Party or declared affiliates of a political party.

“Such a high degree of media concentration as well as political and economical affiliations as we found here . . . puts media pluralism in jeopardy,” said Christian Mihr, executive director of the German section of RSF, “furthermore, it discourages political reporting.”

As Mihr noted, political control of Cambodia’s media was apparent not only during coverage of the 2013 election, but also in the dangers faced by journalists reporting on sensitive subjects.

MOM also noted the influence of foreign media outlets on Cambodia’s media landscape. Foreign-owned outlets, including the Post, were found to account for 7 per cent of newspaper readership, while programs Radio Free Asia and Voice of America were reported among the nation’s most popular.

“We asked ourselves why there are so many foreign papers,” said Lisa-Maria Kretschmer, MOM project manager. “But foreign news can have an important role in setting the standard of independent reporting that others can follow.”

However, local owners said that they did not seek to emulate Western media models or values wholesale.

“It is very difficult for us to be neutral, even BBC or CNN cannot be totally independent,” said the owner of Deum Ampil News, Soy Sohpeap, speaking at yesterday’s launch. “So I think we just have to focus on ensuring plurality of sources in our stories. I feel confident to speak and analyse, but I don’t follow the culture of Western media immediately.”

In place of what RSF calls an opaque licensing process overseen solely by the Ministry of Information, it recommends an independent authority and appropriate legal framework to regulate ownership.

Responding to MOM findings, the ministry’s deputy secretary, Ouk Kim Seng, said that the government will review the 1995 Press Law and that a better public understanding of media brands was important. However, he noted that the project findings should be considered in a cultural context.

“Freedom in Cambodia is different from Western countries,” he said. “Boys and girls have freedom and independence at 18, but parents still observe them long after that.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the owner of Hang Meas TV. His name is actually Ing Chhay Nguon. The Post apologises for any confusion.

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