Radio Reigns in Cambodia

By Kyaw Zwa Moe

PHNOM PENH — Chum Kolab usually sports an earpiece that’s connected to her cute, red mobile phone, but she is not really that obsessed over keeping in constant touch with friends. The third-year university student doesn’t want to miss her favorite radio programs even while traveling from her village to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, and so more often than not, her phone is on radio mode.

“I can get important information as well as fun from radio programs without spending money and time,” Kolab says, admiring the tiny phone on the palm of her hand. “I listen to the radio even while working and travelling.”

Kolab, from Cabar Ampevo, 15 km from Phnom Penh, is by no means the only radio addict in Cambodia. For majority of the country’s 13 million people, radio has become their primary source of news and entertainment. “If you go to the market at our village, you can’t avoid the noise of radio broadcasts that everyone tunes in to,” says Kolab. “They begin turning on their portable radios from about six in the morning. I’d say that all villagers listen to radio.”

Chhun Chhum of Sdao Kanleng, 24 km east of Phnom Penh, would probably not argue with that. Every day, the 65-year-old can be seen sitting on a wooden bench in his home and listening to the radio, which he switches on early every morning.

While Chhum listens in, his son describes the old man’s radio routine: after waking up at around six o’clock Chhum tunes in to the Voice of America (VOA), and Radio Free Asia (RFA). Later he listens to other FM radio stations: one of his favorites is Beehive FM105, widely considered as Cambodia’s only truly independent radio station.

Free and far-reaching
Kolab says one reason for radio’s popularity is that it’s free – a view that is echoed by many other Cambodians, and supported by the fact that Cambodia is among the world’s poorest countries, with about a third of its population living below the poverty line. Owning a TV set is therefore out of the question for many, and even newspapers are a luxury few can afford. In addition, most remote communities do not get any newspapers at all. Then again, only two-thirds of the adult population is literate, so many Cambodians would be unable to read a newspaper even if they could get their hands on one. The non-Khmers in Cambodia who cannot read Khmer also turn automatically to radio.

Cambodia currently has about 15 radio stations, of which two are AM stations. Almost all are controlled by the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and they carry news of official state activities — and little else. A few are run by other political parties and nongovernment organizations (NGOs). The leader of the main opposition party, Sam Rainsy, however, is not allowed to broadcast.

FM90 is run by Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s royalist party, the National United Front for a Neutral, Peaceful, Cooperative and Independent Cambodia, or FUNCINPEC. Another station, FM102, is operated by the Women’s Media Center, an NGO.

For news from independent sources, as well as replays of news from VOA and RFA, listeners must tune in to FM105, or Beehive Radio, known locally as Sambok Khmum. It is the country’s most popular broadcaster.

RFA’s shortwave broadcasts, which give blanket coverage of local news, and VOA’s AM service, also command a big audience. VOA has the edge over RFA because its AM broadcasts are easier to pick up in remote areas, according to the radio’s Phnom Penh-based correspondent, Seng Ratana.

“VOA is very powerful,” admits Minister of Information Lu Lay Sreng.

Radio vs. newspapers
Cambodia’s print journalists likewise concede that radio reaches more people than newspapers, but question its reliability and actuality.

The editor of Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia), Pen Samitthy, maintains that radio stations just broadcast news and information that have already been carried by newspapers. Most stations can’t produce their own reports, he says.

Reporter Ky Soklim of the French-language Cambodge Soi newspaper extends his criticism to the entire media of Cambodia. “People can’t get accurate and fair information since almost all of the media are affiliated with the political parties in some way,” he says.

Just like Kolab, Soklim believes that more people listen to the radio than read newspapers for economic reasons. Cheap radios abound and buying one is a one-time investment. Tuning in to one’s favorite program has no price tag. In comparison, newspapers cost between 1,000 riel (25 cents) and 3,500 riel  (about 87 cents)— a considerable daily expense for, say, a government employee earning the equivalent of 30 dollars a month.

Thus, while there is a shop selling newspapers in Tuol village, Baseth district, Kompong Speu province, many residents do not bother buying one. Even university student Kolab seldom buys a newspaper, except when it contains something she wants to file away for future reference. She and other students read the job vacancies columns, she says. Otherwise, she sticks to her phone-cum-radio. “Newspapers bore me,” says Kolab. “The things they cover are just cliches.”

One can certainly see people reading the newspapers in shops or stalls, but most are browsing through the papers without buying them. One shopowner in Siem Reap says she sells about 200 newspapers a day, but many more customers read for free.

Reduced readership – and TV viewership
Newspaper circulations are consequently small, and even the country’s best-selling Rasmei Kampuchea has a daily print run of only 20,000. Some newspapers get by on a circulation of about 500.

Most of Cambodia’s 20 or so newspapers are based in Phnom Penh and are available only in the country’s 24 provincial capitals. A full 70 percent of Rasmei Kampuchea’s circulation is confined to the capital.

In June, the Somne Thmey (New Writing) began publishing a local newspaper in Khmer in four major provinces: Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Battambang, and Kompong Cham. As Cambodia’s first truly provincial newspaper covering local issues, Somne Thmey’s content varies according to the location; in Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, for example, much of the coverage is dedicated to tourism. The papers are published every two weeks with the help of US-based Asia Foundation.

The originally planned print run of the newspaper was 4,000 — 1,000 copies for each of the four provinces. A reporter for Somne Thmey in Siem Reap, however, estimates that actual sales there (at 25 cents a copy) are still below 100.

There is, of course, television, but unlike radio and newspapers, it is totally controlled by the government and Premier Hun Sen’s party. Two of the seven TV stations — Apsara and Bayon — are run by Hun Sen and by the CPP; the army controls one station and the government controls the rest.

Apsara reporter Prom Vicheth Sophea describes Apsara as the “party station” and Bayon as the “family station.” Surprisingly, he is critical of both. .

“We need to change the programs we’re running now, they contain nothing interesting,” Sophea says. “We’re media, we should follow news. But most officials in our TV station don’t care about information, they just care about the party. That means they don’t work for an audience, but for the party.”

A scarcity in Netizens
There is one independent news medium that the government has so far been unable to put under its thumb: the Internet. But accessing the Web remains too expensive for most Cambodians, and Internet cafes can be found only in some major cities. Those in Phnom Penh charge about 2,000 riel (50 cents) an hour to access the Web, or about half a government employee’s daily wage. Once outside the capital, charges rise sharply. It’s no wonder then that most of the customers in Internet cafes are foreigners. Hang Sambopiphoas, owner of the Galaxy Web Internet café in downtown Phnom Penh, says 90 percent of the 200 or so customers a day using his facilities are foreigners. A few local students are among his clientele, but they’re mostly just checking their email boxes and not surfing sites. Kolab, who is majoring in computer science, says she uses the Internet only once a week to read email from friends.

Sometimes the prices at the Internet cafes can turn off even foreigners. One foreign journalist visiting northeastern Ratanikiri was shocked to find the province’s sole Internet cafe charging customers five dollars an hour. “That’s criminal,” he fumes.

The Internet came to Cambodia in 1997. The government initially allowed two Internet service providers to operate: Camnet and Bigpond. Four others followed: TeleSURF, Shinawatra, Online, and Caminet.

So far, the service providers have attracted a total of only 40,000 subscribers. Three main barriers block the way to greater Internet use, according to the National Information Communications Technology Development Authority Secretary General, Phu Leewood: cost, the lack of telephone landlines, and lack of language proficiency.

But even government officials and professionals who can hurdle these obstacles shun the Internet. Pen Samitthy says most of Rasmei Kamuchea’s journalists don’t use the Internet for research or email.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, meanwhile, is skeptical of all media outlets. Any media form is subject in certain ways to Cambodian government control, he maintains. But when pressed to name the medium that most Cambodians rely on for information, he concedes without hesitation: “The radio.”

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