“Welcome to beautiful Bangkok,” the speaker began with his opening remarks, only to have a woman interject, “But if you travel out of Bangkok, you will see how poor we are.”
Thus began a three-day workshop on poverty in Asia, held in Bangkok last week attended by 20 representatives of media, NGOs, and academia from 12 countries, including Cambodia.
The conference, organized by the Asian Media Information and Communication Center, was called to discuss ways in which the media throughout Asia could take on the various challenges of covering poverty as a social issue.
“Poverty kills not only the body, but the spirit,” University of Asia and the Pacific in the Philippines economics professor Bernardo Villegas said in his keynote address.
Referring to the recent terrorist attacks in the US, and the US military buildup against Afghanistan, Villegas said, “Fighting poverty is more important than fighting terrorism.”
According to some estimates, the number of southern Asians living in poverty is between
330 million and 440 million, but those at the conference said the number was probably much, much higher.
In Cambodia, as much as a fifth of the population is estimated to be living under the poverty line.
All agreed, also, that the media must do a better job of covering poverty. But part of the problem is that many media members are themselves poor.
“The media itself is the victim of poverty. Their low salaries have limited the press coverage,” said Harish Mehta, author of a controversial biography of Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
In Cambodia it is not uncommon for reporters to receive “gifts” of cash following some press conferences, discouraging critical, or even objective coverage.
The other obstacle to fairer coverage of poverty as a social issue, conferees agreed, was censorship. Though, with its some 200 licensed publications and heavy donor support, Cambodia is generally regarded as having one of the region’s most free presses.