Attacks on the Press 2003: Cambodia

March 11, 2004 12:06 PM ET

Nominally democratic, Cambodia continues to struggle with its official commitment to press freedom while the government frequently uses its power to influence, control, and bully the press.

The Cambodian print media are famously free and infamously full of gossip. Some 200 newspapers are licensed for publication, but virtually all Khmer-language publications are subsidized, directly or indirectly, by political interests, and the quality of the press remains wildly erratic. A high degree of illiteracy nationwide and poor distribution outside the capital, Phnom Penh, further mutes the impact of these publications.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's government firmly controls the electronic media. Strict licensing and opaque business relationships conspire to keep the six private television stations close to the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP); the seventh station is owned directly by the government. On the radio dial things are only marginally more open, with all but three stations controlled by the government. The exceptions are the largely noncontroversial FM102, operated by the Women's Media Centre, a nongovernmental organization, and Beehive FM105, the country's only independent news station. The opposition National United Front for a Neutral, Peaceful, Cooperative, and Independent Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), was finally granted a license for its own station, Ta Prum, in late 2002. The other major opposition party, the Sam Rainsy Party, has been waiting years for the government to approve its application for a broadcast outlet.

In recent years, with Cambodia emerging from decades of repression and civil war, once common physical attacks on journalists have decreased considerably. But in October, Chou Chetharith, the deputy editor of Ta Prum radio station, was assassinated in the capital, Phnom Penh, by a gunman riding on the back of a motorcycle. The killing heightened political tension in the city and came when the government and the opposition were locked in bitter negotiations to form a coalition government. The day before the shooting, Hun Sen had criticized Ta Prum's reporting, saying the station was insulting his leadership.

Cambodians with an interest in unbiased reporting rely on foreign sources. Three expatriate-owned local newspapers, two in English and one in French, are far and away the most reliable local sources of news. Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the BBC, and Radio France Internationale all beam Khmer-language news into the country on shortwave. VOA and RFA purchase time on Beehive radio to rebroadcast news on the FM dial, a source of continuing conflict between Beehive and the government, which has periodically banned the rebroadcast of foreign-sourced news. In 2002, Beehive was ordered to stop rebroadcasting the reports, but the ban was lifted in 2003.

During campaigning in July for the general elections, most observers reported that the CPP maintained an overwhelming advantage in access to the electronic news media. In the aftermath of the elections, which resulted in a sweeping victory for the CPP, opposition parties were again given scant coverage during a lengthy period of negotiations to form a coalition government.

The tendency of the media to report rumors and foment conflict had disastrous consequences for the country in January. The local media wrongly quoted a popular Thai actress as saying that the Angkor Wat temple complex, the national symbol of Cambodia, should properly belong to neighboring Thailand. The false accusation fueled historic tensions between the two countries when local politicians repeated the rumor. On January 29, despite the actress's denials, mobs in Phnom Penh burned the Thai Embassy and destroyed numerous Thai-owned businesses, forcing the evacuation of Thai citizens. Diplomatic relations were suspended briefly between the two governments. Eventually, Cambodian officials apologized to Thailand and agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars in damages.

Two journalists were arrested and blamed for the rioting. In Chan Sivutha, editor of Rasmei Angkor (Light of Angkor) newspaper, admitted to publishing the rumor two weeks before the riots without checking its veracity. Court papers cited the second journalist, Mam Sonando, owner and manager of Beehive radio station, for allowing a caller to his station to repeat a false rumor on air that anti-Cambodian rioting was under way in Bangkok. The two were charged with disseminating false information. Both news outlets were threatened with closure, and the journalists, if convicted, could be imprisoned for 10 years. Beehive was off the air for several days under government orders before reopening.

CPJ expressed concern that the issue was being used to single out the journalists for harassment. Pro-government media also reported on and amplified the rumors immediately before the rioting, with government officials, including Hun Sen, denouncing the actress on the air without checking the accuracy of the rumors first. No legal action was taken against other media or officials.

The government action against Beehive was particularly disturbing because Mam Sonando has long been a vocal critic of Hun Sen, and opposition parties and political activists have frequent access to the station. Diplomats and international aid organizations pressured the government to allow Beehive to remain on the air. Because of the slowness of the Cambodian court system and widespread international condemnation of the prosecution, at year's end, it seemed unlikely that the charges against either Mam Sonando or In Chan Sivutha would lead to convictions.

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