Cambodia in 1999 was as peaceful as it has been in decades. The Khmer Rouge insurgency was defeated, and most of its leaders were either dead or in custody, awaiting the possibility that a tribunal would be formed to judge their complicity in the genocidal Pol Pot regime. No elections, or coups d’état, divided the country, as they had in recent years.
For the Khmer-language press, this meant few overt attacks on journalists, and a more tolerant atmosphere than in past years, when reporters were targets of assassination and newspapers could easily be closed down by fiat. There were not even many reported verbal threats against journalists by government officials. The handful of government warnings to newspapers issued during the year were mainly for articles said to have insulted the Cambodian monarchy. Such warnings still carry considerable clout, since press licensing laws give Premier Hun Sen’s government the power to suspend or ban publications.
The local press continues to suffer from fierce partisanship and a lack of professional training. Most newspapers are owned or controlled by political parties who seem to spend as much time insulting their opponents as they spend gathering news. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) wields great influence over print publications, and controls most radio and television broadcasting. In March, however, the opposition Sambok Khmum radio station returned to the air, having been banned by the government since 1998. And in August, the opposition FUNCINPEC party regained control of its radio station from a pro-CPP group that had taken it over following Hun Sen’s 1997 coup.
Worrisome official threats made in late 1998 against Cambodia’s two independent English-language papers, The Cambodia Daily and the fortnightly Phnom Penh Post, were not acted upon. Both are foreign-owned papers that serve as de facto newspapers of record. Officials threatened to shut them down because of their allegedly anti-Hun Sen editorial line.
Lurid crime coverage remains a media staple in a country that still suffers from rampant lawlessness and an ineffective and corrupt police force. As a result, the execution-style murder of popular actress Piseth Pelika in July fueled a boom in newspaper sales. Some dailies tripled their circulation for weeks following the shooting. The unsolved crime, widely rumored to be the result of a love affair between the actress and Hun Sen, was a bigger story for the Cambodian press than either the 1997 coup or Pol Pot’s death in 1998.