The murder of a journalist who worked for a royalist radio station heightened the ongoing political crisis. The opposition accused Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party of having a hand in the killing. The news media were often manipulated by the political parties. During the anti-Thai riots in January, the press cast oil on the flames but subsequently served as the government’s scapegoat.
The government is always insisting that there is press diversity in Cambodia, and it has figures to support this claim. According to the official statistics, Cambodia has 260 newspapers, 37 radio stations and 43 TV channels (21 of them accessible by cable). Secretary of state for information Khieu Khanarith said in an interview in May 2003 for the French-language daily Cambodge Nouveau: "There is total press freedom in Cambodia." The government intervenes as little as possible in the management and functioning of the media and just asks journalists to rectify their reports when they are "unacceptable," he said.
The information ministry itself says that the quality of reporting leaves much to be desired, that journalists lack professionalism and that the six press and journalists’ associations do nothing to help raise the level of competence. Khieu Khanarith said on 30 January: "We have always said we have the freest press in the world because everyone here has the right to make up reports out of thin air." But the ruling party is second to no one in controlling and manipulating the media on its behalf. The prime minister and his allies control seven TV and radio stations. "The stations only take an interest in politics if they are paid to," Khieu Khanarith said.
The opposition, for its part, has a share of the print media. Sam Rainsy’s party owns the dailies Samleng Yuvachun Khmer (The Voice of Khmer Youth) and Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience). The royalist movement FUNCIPEC runs the newspaper Udom Katte Khmer (Khmer Ideology).
In the weeks following the anti-Thai riots at the end of January, the news media questioned themselves about their role in these incidents. In a debate at the Cambodian Journalists’ Club, some journalists blamed politicians for the crisis but Pen Samithy, the editor of the country’s main daily, Rasmey Kampuchea, said journalists had displayed a great lack of professionalism. Some participants called for a code of ethics that could be used as a reference and to call journalists to order.
Independent watchdogs reported during the legislative election campaign in June that, in some provinces, Cambodians only had access to news media controlled by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). In the run-up to the election, intimidation increased against opposition media that criticised Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. For example, the royalist radio station Radio Ta Pruhm, which had begun FM broadcasting in January, openly criticised his policies. The prime minister responded by calling the opposition media to order. A few days later, a Radio Ta Pruhm presenter, Chou Chetharith, was murdered. This was the first time a journalist had been killed in Cambodia since 1997. The independent radio station Beehive FM 105 was also subjected to pressure by the CPP.
A journalist murdered
Chou Chetharith, the deputy editor of Radio Ta Pruhm, a radio station linked to the opposition royalist party FUNCIPEC, was shot at close range by two men on a motorcycle as he was getting out of his car in front of the station’s studios in Phnom Penh on 18 October 2003. Hit by a single shot in the neck, he died on the spot while the two gunmen fled. Aged around 40, Chou Chetharith was also a FUNCIPEC member. Four days prior to the murder, Prime Minister Hun Sen had said Radio Ta Pruhm should "control its programmes" better.
King Norodom Sihanouk condemned the killing, describing it as "politically motivated" in an interview on his news website, and he suspended negotiations about the formation of a new government. He also condemned the fact that "in 99 per cent of the cases, the perpetrators [of killings] cannot be found and are not punished." No one was convicted for any of the six killings of journalists in Cambodia between 1994 and 1997. FUNCIPEC and the party of politician Sam Rainsy together form the Alliance of Democrats, which is in opposition to the Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party, the CPP. In power for the past 20 years, the CPP did not win a big enough majority in the 27 July legislative elections to govern alone. The interior minister announced in early December that a suspect had been identified but not yet arrested. A picture of the suspect was circulated by the police.
Three journalists imprisoned
Bun Chanto, a reporter with the opposition newspaper Samleng Yuvachun Khmer, Thou Tara, a journalist with the privately-owned weekly Pesakacchun, and Ly Chun Huong, a reporter with the government news agency AKP, remained in police detention throughout 2003. They were detained on 24 November 2000, a few hours after militiamen claiming to belong to the Cambodian Freedom Fighter group attacked government buildings in Phnom Penh. According to the police, who have provided little information about the arrests, the names of the journalists appeared on a list drawn up by the head of the militia, Richard Kiri Kim. In 2001, a Phnom Penh court charged the journalists and some 40 other suspects with "terrorist activities and membership of an armed group." Since then the authorities have produced no evidence to support this charge.
Harassment and obstruction
Relations between Cambodia and Thailand underwent a serious crisis in January 2003 as a result of a rumour spread by the Cambodian news media. The daily Rasmei Angkor set things off by erroneously reporting that Thai actress Suvanan Kongying had said in an interview on Thai television that the temple of Angkor Wat, the jewel of Khmer art and Cambodia’s national pride, was actually Thai and should be returned to Thailand at once. This was repeated by other newspapers in Phnom Penh. An ambiguous statement by Prime Minister Hun Sen on 27 January fueled the rumour. Two days later, a crowd attacked the Thai embassy. Within a few hours, the embassy and a dozen Thai businesses were ransacked and torched, one person was killed and eight were wounded. The government pointed its finger at the news media, which were widely blamed. Rasmei Angkor was accused of failing to verify the facts before running the original story. The affair took a political turn in the following days. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy accused the prime minister of provoking the riots by stimulating anti-Thai sentiment in order to divert attention from domestic problems a few months before the legislative elections. After initially taking most of the blame, journalists began to look more like scapegoats who had been used by the government to cloak its true intentions.
The government banned all TV content of Thai origin on 28 January for an indefinite period although it represents a sizeable share of television programming in Cambodia. The ban was not only contrary to legal procedure but also deprived Cambodians of programmes of a better quality that what is produced domestically.
Mam Sonando, the owner of the only independent radio station, Radio Abeille, was one of 147 people arrested on 30 January in connection with the previous night’s rioting. The authorities accused him of letting a listener erroneously report on the air that several Cambodian diplomats had been killed in an attack on the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok. This false information had spread rapidly and, according to the authorities, had ignited the explosion of rage that led to the sacking of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh. Sonando’s wife denied that their radio station ever broadcast this. Sonando was formally charged on 31 January with inciting discrimination, inciting violence and spreading false news, for which he faced a total of nine years in prison and a fine of 20 million riels (5,000 euros). His radio station was put under police surveillance following his arrest and it stopped broadcasting the day he was charged.
In Chansivutha, the editor of the daily Rasmei Angkor, was charged along with 42 other people on 1 February with inciting riots, inciting property destruction and inciting looting in the disturbances of 29 January. His newspaper was responsible for setting off a wave of anti-Thai sentiment and the editor acknowledged that he had not verified the report he published. Mam Sonando and In Chansivutha were released on bail on 11 February as a result of a request to the authorities made jointly by their lawyers and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee.
Phnom Penh’s new governor, Ken Chouktema. decided in March to bar journalists from meetings of the municipal council. Journalists would henceforth be briefed about the council’s meetings by a spokesman.
Nouv Sovathero, a former member of the royalist party FUNCIPEC, was fired as deputy manager of the state-owned radio station FM 96 on 17 June after a presenter criticised the prime minister on the air. The prime minister’s office also transferred the station from the information ministry’s control to that of the national radio broadcaster. These changes were carried out on a public holiday, without the information minister being consulted.
The secretary of state for information threatened to close Sambok Khmum Radio during the legislative election campaign in July because it reportedly carried extracts from Radio Free Asia and Voice of America programmes. A senior ministry official went to the station’s studios on 7 July and reminded staff that broadcasting extracts from foreign radio programmes during an election campaign requires prior permission from the National Electoral Committee. Two independent election monitoring organisations said there were many cases of intimidation of the news media during the first five days of the campaign (26-30 June). The authorities also tried to dissuade the public from listening to Radio Ta Pruhm, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Opposition candidates did not have fair access to the broadcast media.
Information minister Lu Laysreng ordered the daily Samleng Yuvachun Khmer closed for 30 days from 18 August after it published an article criticising the royal family. The newspaper implied that the royal family was trying to ingratiate itself with the prime minister in order to ensure King Norodom Sihanouk’s succession. The king had the libel charges against the newspaper dismissed on 25 August after the editor apologised publicly.