When 53 opposition lawmakers wrote to King Norodom Sihamoni last month asking him to intervene to end increasingly grave political repression in Cambodia, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan had a withering response.
“I’m waiting to see whether The Cambodia Daily packs up to flee or starts digging trenches,” Mr. Eysan said. “If not, this proves that such a claim is wrong.”
It came three days after Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) Chairman Om Yentieng also used the presence of English-language newspapers to repudiate claims of lawlessness in the CPP’s prosecution of its critics.
“The Daily dares not to insult others crudely. They insult us in a high-calibre way, not low-calibre,” Mr. Yentieng said at a press conference, pointing to the years of tolerance for such reporting.
“Hey, you should think: If across Cambodia there existed no state of law, it would not remain like this too long,” he said of the media landscape. “You are a long-time opposition now.”
The argument has become something of a refrain for officials when faced with questions from the English-language press over the CPP’s subjugation of opponents.
Yet the CPP’s forbearance of constant criticism of its authoritarian style can largely be attributed to the small proportion of the population reading the articles, Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said on Monday.
“Having worked for The Phnom Penh Post and written many articles for The Cambodia Daily, I think it is because they do not have a large audience like the Cambodian media,” Mr. Chhean Nariddh said.
“Any articles or stories in these newspapers would not have as strong an impact on the opinions of the people as the local Cambodian press,” he added. “Television is the main source of news.”
Amid a population of more than 15 million, the circulation of Cambodia’s English-language dailies remains in the thousands, while studies have repeatedly shown television to be the dominant source of news.
According to a recent comprehensive survey on media consumer trends, conducted by the Asia Foundation in 2014, 54 percent of respondents reported television as their main source, followed by radio at 27 percent, word of mouth at 10 percent, the internet at 8 percent and newspapers at statistically zero percent.
The television market has accordingly been intently guarded by the government, with all of the country’s terrestrial stations either owned or aligned with the CPP. For years, they either blacked the opposition parties out of coverage or portrayed them as criminals.
When tens of thousands turned out on Phnom Penh’s streets two weeks before the July 2013 national election to greet opposition leader Sam Rainsy after four years in self-imposed exile, it was deemed the biggest opposition rally in two decades of democracy.
Yet the television stations ignored it.
“Some news is not fit for broadcast,” Ma Yarith, a news manager at Apsara TV, said at the time.
“Our broadcast is under the management of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, and we don’t want to have problems,” said Yin Sovey, chief of information at TV3.
While the CNRP’s gains in 2013 have been attributed in part to the emergence of social media as a communications medium, Mr. Rainsy said in September that a TV station still remained the holy grail.
“The Facebook audience is young and mobile people, and also better educated people,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“TV is for the public at large, the older people, and people in the countryside. These are the traditional and more conservative people, but we have to convince the conservative people as well,” he explained.
The CNRP was promised a license for the nation’s first opposition-aligned station as part of its landmark post-2013 election deal with the CPP, but the government last month banned it from erecting its antenna due to health concerns among residents in Takhmao City.
Popular radio station owner Mam Sonando has also repeatedly had his requests for a TV license denied, even calling a protest over the issue in 2014 that was violently suppressed by state security guards.
Mr. Chhean Nariddh said there had been a slow move by the CPP-aligned stations in recent years toward more truthful reporting—driven by a desire to draw back audiences leaving for social media.
“That’s why I have noticed some kinds of stories that were never reported on TV before, like illegal logging and corruption associated with mid-level and low-level government officials,” Mr. Chhean Nariddh said. “But they still maintain the entrenched stance not to touch the top-level government officials.”
This firm stance against criticizing the upper echelons of the government is not shared by Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Voice of America (VOA), which have long been two of the only broadcast media outlets to regularly offer a voice to opposition politicians.
The U.S.-funded outlets provide hourlong news and current-affairs shows each morning and night for radio stations to broadcast, often with highly critical reports on the government. VOA also produces videos for its 3.3 million Facebook fans.
Their effect has not gone unnoticed. During the 2013 election campaign, the CPP announced a ban on the broadcast of both RFA and VOA before rescinding it under pressure.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said on Sunday the government saw those Khmer-language stations as having the aim of overthrowing them—as opposed to the English-language newspapers, which he said provided constructive criticism.
“Compare The Cambodia Daily with Radio Free Asia, who have a mission to topple the government. We understand that—let them do that. But The Cambodia Daily goes straight to the issues, and we can learn from that and correct ourselves,” Mr. Siphan said.
“I don’t want to say we learn nothing from Radio Free Asia, but it’s not like The Cambodia Daily, because it has a mission of no fear and no favor.”
Mr. Siphan has not been so ingratiating about this newspaper in the past, having in 2014 used a lecture to the country’s top state journalism school to accuse its journalists—who have taught at the school—of being on the payroll of foreign “special interests.”
“Some are called to come to be against the government as an NGO,” Mr. Siphan told students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Department of Media and Communications. “They’re not professionals of media. You get it?”
He then threatened to sue the reporter who obtained a recording of the lecture.
More substantial threats continue to inhibit a free media environment in the country, according to a study released in March by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), which found that 25.5 percent of the journalists it surveyed reported having been physically attacked or harassed during their work.
A further 29.4 percent reported threats arising from reports on illegal logging, corruption and land disputes, and 58 percent said they did not feel free to report on all issues without fear of interference or consequences.
At least 13 journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1993 in cases believed to be related to their work, while once-common lawsuits against journalists for defamation have faded as the opposition print media has been diminished to one sparsely read four-page daily.
In its place have risen independent online outlets like Voice of Democracy (VOD) Hot News—run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media—which have dominated social media alongside CPP-aligned outlets like Fresh News, which often serves as the outlet of official government documents.
Sun Narin, online manager of VOD Hot News, said on Monday that journalists at his website reported the news without fear or constraints, free to criticize the government and opposition alike.
“We hire reporters who are professional, and we are not afraid of anything,” he said. “We hear about the ‘color revolution,’ and they say if we provoke that, it’s against the law. So sometimes we wonder about doing stories about ‘color revolutions,’ and we have to be careful with our words.”
Yet Mr. Narin reiterated that his team faced few obstacles from the government in its reporting—attributing it mainly to their primary presence as a website.
“But I am also afraid that when the elections are approaching, this could change,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated opposition lawmakers wrote to King Norodom Sihanouk. The letter was addressed to King Norodom Sihamoni. The Cambodian Institute for Media Studies was also incorrectly named.