In the lead-up to Sunday’s election, local television stations showed plenty of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s frowning, or beaming, visage.
Other viewing options included karaoke videos or soap operas, but the only footage of the opposition CNRP showed seemingly drunken youths wearing campaign gear and dancing.
Mr. Hun Sen is well aware of his party’s media dominance.
“You have one channel, we have 39 channels,” he taunted the Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties in the lead-up to the 2008 national election.
Yet the preliminary results of the national election—which reduced the ruling party’s majority from 90 seats to an estimated 68—revealed a surprise: Despite the CPP’s almost total control
of the media, the opposition had still managed to disseminate its message.
CNRP chief whip Son Chhay said Tuesday that the shift in seats had come about because the CPP had relied too heavily on its grip on broadcast media.
“They lost this election because they miscalculated: They thought if they used the television they could win the support of everyone without being honest or creating a fair society,” he said.
“Our approach was to travel to the grassroots. We traveled, we visited every commune in this country to explain our policies and take questions.”
Mr. Chhay said he believed Cambodians had tired of what he called CPP propaganda.
The Internet also played an important role in augmenting the success of the CNRP’s door-to-door communications strategy, according to CNRP lawmaker candidate Mu Sochua.
“The whole thing was social media,” she said.
“I would say 85 to 90 percent of our youth in the city areas were able to mobilize everyday, and they were all organizing on Facebook.”
Mounh Sarath, one of the CNRP’s grassroots campaigners in Battambang province’s Samlot district, agreed that the election results showed the CNRP’s communication strategies had succeeded, but added that he believed the opposition was still at a disadvantage.
“In terms of the effectiveness in getting information out, we have two-way communication, but in a day we can only reach a few homes,” he said.
“With television, we could at least tell a larger scale of people and provide more information from more angles.”
Mr. Sarath added that TV would have also helped people who support the CNRP in private come together in public to promote the party.
“When we saw Sam Rainsy return and we saw a few hundred thousand people turn out, the media just said a few thousand came and the people didn’t realize the size of it,” he said.
“If people saw those pictures, they’d have more confidence. They’d think: ‘It’s not only me who supports the opposition,’ and it’d create more interest,” he continued.
The Internet has proved a more appealing means of communication for the CNRP than broadcast media, according to Kong Mas, deputy director of the Facebook page CNRP Hot News, which is run out of CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Chak Angre Loeu district.
“This is the only way we can spread our news but when we do, it spreads from one to 10 to tens of hundreds of people,” Mr. Mas said.
“We do not have any media like the ruling party, but it is easy to spread news this way, because we do not need to be well prepared like for TV.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan claimed the CPP’s saturation of TV stations was not government policy, as station owners could choose to show what they liked.
“It’s like in the U.S. If they like the Republicans, they support the Republicans—if they like the Democrats, they support the Democrats,” he said.
“It’s the same here. They don’t like [the CNRP].
“But it doesn’t affect things that much. [The CNRP] uses U.S.-funded programs like Radio Free Asia and Voice of America as their mouthpiece, and biased NGOs to release press releases.”
Although the CNRP made large gains despite biased media, they should still have access to TV coverage, said Cambodia Institute for Media Studies Director Moeun Chhean Nariddh.
“There will be political negotiations before the government is formed,” Mr. Chhean Nariddh said.
“One of the requirements the opposition could try to negotiate with the ruling party would be to have access to the broadcast media—at least to be able to establish a TV station.”
It is a goal that Ms. Sochua says her party will focus on in the coming mandate, but one that Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, Australia, said may be becoming less important in Cambodia.
“In Vietnam, they read the government newspapers at work but at home they’re reading their iPads,” Mr. Thayer said.
“For the [Cambodian] opposition, the youth vote is very important, and with everybody out there holding up mobile phones, you have to ask where they’re actually getting their information now.”
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)
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