Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, can count on the support of the majority of the broadcast media. Only one radio station is critical of him and the highly-politicised written press struggles to maintain its role of challenging authority.
The publication, in May 2007, of a report on deforestation by the organisation Global Witness, provoked a raft of incidents in relation to the press, including the temporary closure of Cambodge Soir, harassment and death threats against three journalists who wrote about the issue. The report highlighted the responsibility of people close to the head of government in large-scale illegal logging. The press picked up the report, but on 8 June, the information minister, Khieu Kanharith, said that “the media had had a week to put out their reports” and that was “largely sufficient”. Newspapers could “make reference to it but not reproduce it”. Any infringement would result in “our taking necessary judicial steps” the minister specified. The brother of the head of government, Hun Neng, reportedly said that if anyone from Global Witness came to Cambodia, he would “hit him about the head until it broke”. Journalists on Radio Free Asia, one of the very few media to have seriously investigated deforestation, were threatened by an unknown interloper at their station’s studios in Phnom Penh.
At the same time, French journalist Soren Seelow of the French-Khmer paper Cambodge Soir was sacked without notice, on 10 June, after reprinting part of the Global Witness report. One of the managers of the paper, also a French adviser to the Cambodian agriculture ministry, and its editor decided to close the paper. Staff went on strike to defend the paper’s editorial independence, which was threatened by intervention on the part of some shareholders. It has an outspoken stance and despite recurring financial problems, Cambodge Soir has made its mark on the Cambodian media landscape, digging up news for the Khmer-language press. After several weeks of conflict, some of the journalists re-launched the title in a new format. Thanks to mediation by its funder, the International Francophone Organisation, its editorial independence was at least partly protected but around a dozen staff ended up losing their jobs.
Also in June, Lem Piseth, of Radio Free Asia, received a death threat after investigating deforestation in Kompong Thom province in central Cambodia. In his report, he said that he was followed by soldiers and police. Then he had a call on his mobile phone and the following conversation ensued: “Is that you, Lem Piseth? “Yes. Who are you? “You are insolent, do you want to die? “Why are you insulting me like this? “Because of the business of the forest and you should know that there will not be enough land to bury you”. The journalist fled to Thailand.
In August, it was the turn of Phon Phat, of the Khmer-language newspaper Chbas Ka, to be threatened for the same reasons. His house was set on fire after he had been threatened with reprisals. His reports had implicated businessman Meas Siphan in illegal deforestation.
Television under control
Cambodia boasts 11 TV stations but not one of them is genuinely independent. The Aspara, group which owns one television and one radio station, is owned by Hun Sen’s daughter. Bayon Television is directly controlled by the party of the head of government while TV3 and TV5 are respectively controlled by the Phnom Penh municipality and the armed forces. Only Cambodian Television Network gives occasional airtime to opposition figures.
Radio Sombok Khmum (Beehive FM 105) plays an important role in the media landscape. It rents its aerial to the main Cambodian opposition parties and to Radio Free Asia (RFA), whose Khmer service readily broadcasts challenging news. The head of government in May accused the deputy editor of RFA’s Phnom Penh bureau, Um Sarim, of being “offensive” and working for an “aggressive” radio station. The prime minister ordered all TV channels to show the altercation to demonstrate to TV viewers the extent of the “insolence” of RFA. Um Sarim left the country for several days.
Ahead of legislative elections scheduled for July 2008, there are fears that the ruling party will tighten its grip still further on electronic media. Hun Sen has already said that he plans to stay in power for another 20 years.