Cambodia’s most influential newsman, or at least the man whose stories reach the widest audience, decided on July 25 that his television stations did not have air time for one of the biggest news events of the year, the massive funeral procession for Kem Ley, a respected political analyst and constant thorn in the government’s side whose murder many believe was a state-sponsored hit.
“We missed the march because we didn’t have time to air the event because the TV stations were busy with concerts and boxing,” Huy Vannak, the head of news for Cambodian Television Network (CTN) and its sister station Cambodian News Channel, said in the hours after hundreds of thousands lined the streets in mourning for the 46-year-old analyst.
Overseeing news programs that run a steady diet of tabloid television—crime, car crashes and celebrities—Mr. Vannak, 38, also makes sure there is plenty of time to cover government events, business launches and notable acts of charity, often by prominent businessmen and government officials.
“You need to promote the positive thinking. That is the philosophy at CTN,” he said during an interview at Hotel Cambodiana’s lounge in September, wearing a tailored dark blue suit and sipping fruit juice. “Every single day of life you face difficulty, trust me, but if you can find a better and good opportunity for yourself, then you can do many things and the problem will run away from you.”
A pagoda boy who did well in school, Mr. Vannak earned a master’s degree in global affairs from Rutgers University in New Jersey, and began his career in media at Radio Free Asia. A rising star within the ruling party, he was appointed in April as an undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry and is a central committee member of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, the ruling party’s youth wing, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son. His abilities as a politician are plentiful—dapper, diplomatic, smart and a master of spin.
Asked how he might apply his positive worldview to an article about the military surrounding the opposition party’s headquarters in late August with helicopters, navy boats and trucks carrying masked and heavily armed soldiers—in response, many believed, to the CNRP threatening mass demonstrations—Mr. Vannak didn’t hesitate.
“To me, as I work for the government too, it’s the obligation of the government to protect and [provide] security for the people,” he said. “For me, look, it’s better to see the military without blood and the bodies. That’s my message. It’s OK to see military on the roads—not military. It’s OK to see police or security forces on the road, in which there is no blood or nobody hurt or dead. It’s normal security.”
Mr. Vannak was not alone in deciding not to cover Kem Ley’s funeral procession—the event was effectively blacked out on all local television stations. Nonetheless, he took great exception to The Cambodia Daily’s article quoting him about it, noting that his stations had covered Kem Ley’s murder and would continue to follow the trial of his alleged killer. In a text message to the Daily, he said journalists the world over had the right to decide what to cover.
“So this is very clear that each media institution, not just here in Cambodia or outside, they have policy to choose content to serve publics,” he said. “You need to respect that rights and that freedom.”
Mr. Vannak’s Vision
The journalist in Mr. Vannak is fed up with hearing people speak poorly of his colleagues—and the profession as it is practiced in his home country. “You understand the definition and people judge our fellow journalist. It’s sad to me. And that’s why I commit for it, because my blood is that of a journalist.”
“What you need is quality of reports that can offer better judgment and positions to the public. That is all that journalists need.”
The main issue plaguing Cambodia’s media outlets, according to Mr. Vannak, is not a lack of independence or journalists being on the take, but rather a lack of quality.
“What you need is quality of reports that can offer better judgment and positions to the public. That is all that journalists need,” he said. “Whether you write about the negative or positive things about the society, you need better quality reports that people can reflect, can think, can make a decision that here, what is good to do for your society and the world. I think that is all the media needs.”
His plan to fix the problem is built around the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, an organization that began a few months ago with its headquarters in a light blue building a few blocks from Independence Monument in central Phnom Penh. The funding for the project has come largely from senior government officials and CPP-friendly businessmen, with smaller contributions from members working for various media organizations.
The first floor of the two-story building is mostly taken up by the News Coffee, a cafe that is meant to help support the union—as well as a Wing mobile money transfer kiosk with the same purpose. Upstairs is an open area with a couch and ping-pong table, a place for journalists to hang out and relax, Mr. Vannak said.
“We can accommodate 50 to 60 people. We installed air conditioning and everything. It’s a good place to go,” he said. “We have computers with free internet, and coffee, chit-chat, and we installed TV. You can watch TV. It’s a place where it’s like a local FCC [Foreign Correspondents Club]. We try to do it that way.”
Off to the side of the main room is Mr. Vannak’s office, which has a desk and a long conference table for meetings of the union’s founding members, mostly editors and executives of prominent Khmer-language media outlets. Mr. Vannak said the union already has some 800 members from outlets spanning the industry, from old media such as newspapers, radio and TV to upstarts such as social media pages and smartphone apps.
The founding members include Lim Cheavutha, the CEO of Fresh News, a popular website that reports government news so fast and unfiltered that a reader gets the sense they are working together; Ath Bonny, founding editor of the National Police Newspaper, an enterprise that serves as both a platform for messages from senior police officials and reporting straight from crime fighters; directors of almost all the government-aligned television stations, which is to say all of the local television stations; and heads of the state-run media outlets. The group also includes Cheang Sokha, executive editor of the Khmer Times, and Vong Sokheng, deputy news editor at The Phnom Penh Post. Cambodia Daily journalists were not invited to join the union, though Mr. Vannak said they were welcome to take part in its activities.
The walls of the upstairs rooms are lined with framed photographs of Mr. Vannak posing with various government ministers, including Prime Minister Hun Sen. In one photograph, Mr. Vannak is seated at a UJFC fundraising event along with Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn, Tourism Minister Thong Khon, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, and Hong Piv, a real estate tycoon who has made generous donations to Mr. Vannak’s cause.
“To me, I don’t care where your money comes from,” Mr. Vannak said. “This is how you find your support and after that it’s you, your principles that define you. The government gives us the money, but the government officials have to get my message: Don’t expect fear or favor, but do the good thing and right thing for the people.”
Asked about whether journalists could be expected to maintain their own independence as members of an organization funded and run by government officials, Mr. Vannak said the question was misguided.
“That’s input and output. What you are trying to do is about output. You are trying to ask me, but the union, it works on the input. How to produce better journalists first. And the output, it doesn’t account for us. It depends on individual freedoms and rights and how to do it. And after they leave us, there is freedom.”
Kok Thay Eng was hired to run the union’s day-to-day operations as head of the UJFC secretariat. Before taking the job, he worked for a decade at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which holds the largest Khmer Rouge archives in the world, and uses them as part of unceasing efforts to educate Cambodians about their history. They were working as young researchers at the center when Mr. Eng and Mr. Vannak met—Mr. Eng also studied at Rutgers, returning to Cambodia with a doctorate in global affairs.
Mr. Eng, 36, is still working on a personal project to collect the names of the estimated 1.7 million people who died under the Khmer Rouge—along with their age, gender, and cause and location of their deaths. He has 20,000 recorded so far. With the journalists union, he said, he was ready for a new challenge, and felt there was much to improve in the local media industry.
“I think the main weakness for them is the knowledge of the topics they discuss about, they write about. They don’t have the depth of knowledge to write about something in a very meaningful way,” he said during an interview at the union’s cafe last month, wearing a short-sleeved button-down shirt and slacks. “Part of that is because when writing in Khmer, the reader also doesn’t have a lot of knowledge, depth. So the writer and the reader are on the same page. So that is why at UJFC we try to create training programs that allow the people working in the media, especially Cambodian journalists, to improve their knowledge on specific fields they always work with.”
The first training session was held late last month, focusing on how to cover legal cases. “So that the journalists and people from TV know exactly what to report and what not, what is confidential what’s not, what’s open to the public and what’s not, so they understand the procedure and key processes in the court hearing.”
In contrast to Mr. Vannak, Mr. Eng said that independence was a key element of journalism, but that he could not think of a media outlet in the country—in Khmer or English—that managed to find middle ground, particularly when it came to political coverage.
“Khmer language outlets, I don’t think there is one, including on the radio. English language outlets, I think they are too biased. In Cambodia, I think they are a bit biased toward one side and not the other. They are biased toward the opposition. They are more biased toward that, whether they say it or not. They speak more on behalf of the opposition. If there is something bad about Cambodia, then they talk bad,” he said.
“If there is something good like the latest development, there should be more positive reinforcement. And then you get more collaboration,” he added. “So you can pick and choose the news that you want and sometimes you have to choose more of the positive, from time to time at least, maybe. And then if you do more like that, then the negative might be more listened to. People might listen more to your critical aspects.”
Mr. Eng said the union did not expect to be able to change ingrained practices of corruption in journalism—people paying to place stories or to keep stories out of the news—or the self-censorship practiced by many mainstream media outlets.
“It has been there, in terms of what you discuss, what’s allowed to report and constraints around reporting about particular topics has been there in Cambodia already, you know, and everybody knows. I don’t think it comes from UJFC, or what we have been doing will create that. It has been there already. It will continue whether it has us or not,” he said.
Of donors who want to influence news coverage, he said: “They have their own connections to deal with this issue. Nobody expects us to do that for them.”
As Mr. Eng showed reporters around the upstairs of the union’s building—surrounded by a veritable collage of Mr. Vannak and fellow ruling party power brokers—he insisted politics was not part of the plan.
“You can judge for yourself,” he said. “Our programs will be meaningful for journalists. We will not try to indoctrinate them to oppose or support the government. Meaningful in a technical sense.”
Ouk Kimseng, spokesman for the Information Ministry, said this week that it was still too soon to say whether Mr. Vannak and his union will succeed in its mission to improve the quality of journalism in the country. But he said there was no issue with a fellow government official leading the drive.
“I don’t want to be too early to evaluate what to expect. But I hope these people, with their skills of professionalism in journalism, can help journalism in Cambodia to improve or to comply with what we call the current development of democracy practice in this kingdom,” he said. Mr. Kimseng lamented the tendency among some to dismiss government-led projects as being politically motivated.
“In Cambodia, if you criticize the government you will be seen by the other group of people as independent. But if you are in support of the government, people will point at you and say you are pro-government. So what? So this is the decision they take and wherever they go, this is their right,” he said.
“So just one short comment that, if I am part of the government, you call me not independent or biased. If I am on the other side other than the government, then you never make any comment on my involvement by participation. So this must clearly indicate their right to choose whom they support.”
Both Mr. Vannak and Mr. Eng stressed during interviews that all journalist were welcome to take part in workshops or training put on by the union. However, the lineup of journalists selected to start the union is notably absent of representatives from media outlets that are particularly unpopular with the government, noted Sun Narin, the founder of the startup news site The Phnom Penh Today and former news editor for Voice of Democracy (VOD).
“I think it is an organization that is just set up to mobilize journalists to be on their team, but only the journalists who work for the organizations that has a tendency toward the government or not much freedom to report sensitive issues of the government,” he said. “So they don’t dare to collect journalists from independent media, such as VOD, VOA, RFA. They don’t trust those organizations.”
Despite their facilities and funding, Mr. Narin said he was dubious that the group could improve the quality of journalism, if that meant teaching members how to report critically and in-depth, even when stories touched on sensitive topics involving powerful people.
“It’s not a surprise to me that they have a lot of money, because the guy who is the boss has a strong attachment to the government,” he said. “So I am also wondering, when one of the journalists faces a lawsuit from government, will that group dare to have a statement on that? I am looking forward to seeing it.”