Political tension breeds anxiety, self-censorship in Cambodian media

24 February 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Political uncertainty in Cambodia, underscored by recent developments stripping three leading oppositionists of parliamentary immunity, is creating anxiety among the country’s journalists and giving rise to a troubling trend for self-censorship.

On 3 February, Cambodia’s National Assembly stripped three parliamentarians from the Sam Rainsy Party—party president Sam Rainsy, Chea Poch and Cheam Channy—and paved the way for mounting charges against the oppositionists.

Sam Rainsy and Chea Poch face defamation lawsuits lodged by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who is concurrently president of the National Assembly and the FUNCINPEC Party. The oppositionists had alleged that the prince accepted bribes to join the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in a coalition government.

Sam Rainsy and Chea Poch managed to escape and flee Cambodia.

For his part, Cheam Channy was arrested and put in a military prison. He stands accused of organizing a private army, a charge the opposition denies. Opposition leaders insist that Cheam Channy was merely heading an above-board “shadow Cabinet” to monitor the government’s military activities.

Despite mounting international pressure to restore the parliamentary immunity of the three opposition lawmakers, the National Assembly appears to be standing its ground.

One consequence of the situation is that the Cambodian media is growing wary.

SEAPA sources say many members of the press—especially those who count themselves among the “opposition media”—are becoming overly cautious in their reportage and commentary. Though nobody has reported receiving any warning or intimidation from the government, some Cambodian editors acknowledge a tendency now for self-censorship.

“The lifting of immunity of [opposition parliamentarians] is a general threat to the freedom of the press,” says Mam Sonando, director of the Beehive Radio FM105 Sonando says editors and reporters are concerned that government will “act against us if they [think] we have written anything defamatory.”

Sonando stresses that their station considers itself independent of both government and the opposition. All the same, he says Cambodian journalists are concerned that “if you don’t support [the government], they think we oppose them.”

Dam Sith, editor-in-chief of Moneaksekar Khmer, the only remaining opposition newspaper, shares Sonando’s concerns for the media.

Sith says Moneaksekar itself has softened its commentary and language when discussing government ever since the three opposition parliamentarians were stripped of their immunity.

“[The government] dared to act against parliamentarians, so they will surely act against us [if we make any mistakes],” he said.

Moneaksekar Khmer is currently fighting a lawsuit filed by the FUNCINPEC after the paper called the National Assembly “the Packaged National Assembly” following the vote that formed a coalition government between the CPP and the FUNCINPEC.

Related to this, Dam Sith has twice been haled to the court for questioning. He notes, however, that the court does not use existing press laws to prosecute journalists. Instead the provisional criminal code of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) is what is now usually wielded against media members.

The editor of a pro-Sam Rainsy radio station in Phnom Penh said they have exercised self censorship to avoid trouble.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the editor says his station has reduced its coverage of oppositionists, has been more receptive to official releases from government. He added that the Ministry of Information now also wants the station to record all its newscasts and to submit the same to the ministry every month.

Background on Cambodia and its media

After almost 20 years under the harsh rule of the Khmer Rouge and a Vietnamese-installed government, Cambodia (once called Kampuchea) saw democracy reintroduced to the country through the 1993 general elections overseen by the United Nations.

The change of regime and the introduction of democracy brought with it more freedom for a long suppressed press. Since then, hundreds of newspapers have been established.

Today’s Cambodian papers fall under three categories that shadow the three main political parties. Basically, one category of newspapers supports the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (many of whose members are former Khmer Rouge cadres and diehard communists), the second category supports the FUNCINPEC (the royalist party of the former anti-communist resistant movement in the 1980s and early 1990s), and the third category supports the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

Though still lacking a genuinely neutral and independent press, many media professionals at least value the three categories of the newspapers as representatives of diversity in opinions and an atmosphere of openness in Cambodia’s fragile democracy.

One problem in this reality, however, is a lack of balance in influence and size. All the largest dailies are aligned with the CPP.

Meanwhile, the broadcast media is still strictly under government control or influence.

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