F ROM the bland to the sensational, the sycophantic to the vitriolic, the
Cambodian newspaper market offers no shortage of choice.
press which sprang up with Cambodia's move to democracy is now in full blossom,
with 42 Khmer-language "newspapers, magazines, bulletins and newsletters"
registered with the Ministry of Information.
One result has been a fierce
circulation war, which recently came close to claiming two main players as
Both of the country's Khmer-run daily newspapers - Rasmei
Kampuchea and Koh Santepheap - narrowly avoided being closed down by their
owners last month.
The two-year-old Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Kampuchea)
claims a circulation of 10,000, down from twice that four or five months
Editor-in-Chief Pen Samitthy blames the circulation fall on stiff
competition and fewer readers being able to afford to buy newspapers every
With a staff of 70 and correspondents in most provinces, the 12-page
Rasmei Kampuchea is considered as close to a comprehensive newspaper as Cambodia
Printed in Bangkok with color on the front and back pages, it is
better-looking than other newspapers, which, as one person puts it, look like
"someone has picked up a bunch of pictures and type and thrown them at a
Samitthy proclaims the paper as unrivaled in professionalism, and
is critical of some competitors.
"In Cambodia, many people do not think
that this is a business. They think newspapers should support this politician,
or that politician.
"Mr A gives the newspaper $500, Mr B gives them $1000
and they can publish another issue. They keep publishing like that."
talks of newspapers printing stories without facts, or constantly criticizing
public figures such as Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
[publish] opinion about Hun Sen, that he is bad. Tomorrow, they will also say
bad, bad, bad...
"If I was Hun Sen, I would also [be unhappy] with Nguon
Nuon and Chan Dara," he says of two journalists, one jailed and the other killed
However, he later adds: "I was the first person to embrace
Nguon Noun when he came out of jail. Of course, we support our
For its part, Rasmei Kampuchea - owned jointly by Thai
companies Thai Boon Rong and the Wattachak publishing group - is seen by some as
being pro-government, and pro-Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in
Samitthy rejects that, saying: "Sometimes we have articles
supporting the government or supporting the CPP but we have many articles
But the newspaper does prefer to stay out of politics. Its
owners dictate that it should not concern itself with "matters of policy",
according to Samitthy.
"But of course our articles must sometimes be
about [government] policy," and the owners do not object "if we give balanced
A possible sign of the paper's government relations came
recently when its owners proposed closing it because of high-running
One expense cited was the tax paid on its newspapers when imported
from Thailand after printing, so Samitthy personally appealed to Hun Sen for a
"I called Samdech Hun Sen and he agreed... I don't know
whether [First Prime Minister] Prince Ranariddh will agree... but I think there
is a more than 90 per cent chance that he will agree."
Also shying away
from political news is the other daily newspaper, Koh Santepheap (Island of
Peace), which doesn't try to live up to its name.
broadsheet is an unabashed tabloid-style newspaper. Full of crime stories, the
more gruesome the better, it's the National Inquirer of Cambodia.
much about politics - only killing," is Koh Santepheap office manager Chheav Sy
Pha's description of the paper's contents. A copy of that day's edition lies in
front of him, the faces of five or six dead, or near dead, people staring out of
the front page photographs.
First opened in 1968 and closed two days
before the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Koh Santepheap was the first
non-official newspaper to reopen during UNTAC.
It claims to have had a
50,000 circulation in those heady early days, quenching a public thirsty for
information, now down to 5,500-7,000.
Its publisher, Thong Uypang - said
to have past links to the CPP - has become something of a mystery man, known for
greeting visitors, when he can be found, with a pistol lying on his
He wasn't about when the Post visited - he'd gone to Thailand,
apparently, without telling his staff.
Chheav Sy Pha said that wasn't
unusual, particularly after Uypang's Kompong Cham journalist, Chan Dara, was
murdered in December.
"He doesn't let people know where he is. Many
people hate this newspaper because of our reports on crime."
Santepheap does its job well is undisputed - Rasmei Kampuchea's Pin Samitthy
talks of assigning more reporters to crime news after being scooped too often -
but it has its critics for being sensational.
Another newspaper with a
popular, but highly political, niche is the tri-weekly Samleng Yuvachon Khmer
(Voice of Khmer Youth).
Probably the government's No.1 enemy in the Khmer
press, its trademark is bluntly-worded stories alleging corruption,
mismanagement and more by senior government figures.
Initially set up to
promote Funcinpec in the UNTAC elections, it now supports party dissidents such
as Sam Rainsy. It is also strongly anti-Vietnamese, and includes Hun Sen in the
It has paid a heavy price for its abrupt style, with its
first editor, Non Chan, murdered. It has been subjected to suspensions and
seizures by the authorities.
Current editor Chan Rottana was recently
sentenced to 12 months jail, for an opinion piece criticizing the First Prime
Minister under a headline which roughly translates to "Prince Ranariddh is three
times more stupid a day than Hun Sen". Free on appeal, he says he intends to
Deputy Chief Editor Ou Sovann defends the newspaper's style on
the grounds that it is trying to urge the government to improve, and "everyone
can express their opinion in a democratic country".
He claims a stable
circulation of around 6,000 copies, but higher when there is some "good news" -
"especially articles or news about the government".
Formerly funded by
Funcinpec, and particularly Sam Rainsy, it now denies receiving any political
Owned solely by three former and current editors - in Non Chan's
case, his widow - Sovann says the newspaper makes a small profit from
circulation sales alone.
Others in the industry say such papers, their
pages usually devoid of any paid advertisements, must have financial
Other newspapers which have faced official sanctions include
Sereipheap Thmei (New Liberty News), now being sued by the government, and the
currently-suspended Uddom Gati Khmer (Khmer Ideal).
(Morning News) - whose editor Nguon Nuon, a Funcinpec supporter, was jailed for
implicating Interior Minister Sar Kheng in last year's coup attempt - is said by
some Khmer observers to have softened its political coverage recently.
the opposite side of the spectrum are the government-owned newspapers Kampuchea
and Pracheachun (People), which push the official line, and a host of
publications that fall somewhere in between.
"There's a whole bunch that
are pro-government or anti-government," says one journalist. "A number are
politically-backed, and whoever is doing the backing has deep pockets of one
sort or another.
"On both sides, there are opinion articles presented as
[news] stories which aren't really stories. There's bad on both sides."