Attacks on the Press 2001: Cambodia

With the government of strongman Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party firmly entrenched in power, the press was largely spared from the harsh political battles that once divided the country into armed camps.

The major political event looming for Cambodia in 2002 will be the long-delayed trial of remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist movement that laid waste to the country from 1975 to 1979. With some current political leaders tainted by association with the Khmer Rouge, passions are certain to run high over the trials.

In January, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong sued three staff members of the English-language Cambodia Daily for US$1 million dollars for printing two stories alleging that he had once run a Khmer Rouge prison camp. In September, a judge ordered the paper to print a retraction of the story and fined the journalists nearly US$8,000. The case was currently under appeal at press time.

In May, some 200 local journalists representing three different press associations gathered under the umbrella of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance and UNESCO to celebrate World Press Freedom Day. The event marked the first time that the often politically divided Khmer-language press joined together for such a celebration. Speakers at the event noted that while Cambodian newspapers operate with relative freedom, the broadcast media in the country remain strictly controlled, with few opposition voices given access to radio and television.

The ruling party runs Cambodia’s six television stations. Of the country’s 11 radio stations, all but two are essentially pro-government. FM102, run by the Women’s Media Center in the capital, Phnom Penh, provides the most balanced news and commentary.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith, a longtime Hun Sen associate, defended the government’s record in March by saying that Cambodian airwaves are more open than those in neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Burma, and Laos, all of which are one-party states. “We have many political debates on the radio and television, some organized by non-governmental organizations,” he told The Associated Press. “Compared to the region, you can say Cambodia has among the freest media.” He did not mention neighboring Thailand, which actually does have the region’s freest press.

Meanwhile, in the print media, years of turmoil have impoverished the countryside and drastically reduced literacy, so much so that even the largest Khmer-language daily, Rasmei Kampuchea, prints just 15,000 copies a day for a country of 12 million people.

Lack of professionalism in the media is also an ongoing problem. Journalists are paid a pittance and frequently use extortion to supplement their incomes. Cambodian journalists told CPJ that reporters commonly threaten businessmen with negative publicity unless they pay a bribe.

The government has repeatedly pledged to amend the country’s already restrictive press laws with a subdecree that could drastically reduce the number of newspapers allowed to publish by mandating that publishers obtain licenses and meet stringent capital requirements. The subdecree, which local journalist associations universally oppose, was withheld from Parliament in 2001.

The political battles that once turned virtually all Khmer newspapers into partisan attack vehicles have subsided since Hun Sen consolidated his power following a 1997 coup against his main political rival. Now some of the larger newspapers, despite their ties to Hun Sen, publish more balanced coverage. The most independent papers remain the Cambodia Daily and the excellent biweekly Phnom Penh Post, both foreign-owned, English-language newspapers launched during the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the early 1990s.