DECHO APHIVAT COMMUNE, Kampot province – In this sparsely populated area along the eastern fringe of Bokor National Park in Chhuk district, villagers are scrambling to claim sandy, arid land as an international company surges ahead with its palm oil plantation.
As in many of the hundreds of unresolved land disputes playing out across the country, the villagers claim that long-term residency gives them the right to inhabit the land, while the company has a government-granted economic land concession (ELC) that effectively trumps those claims.
While local media have mostly ignored Decho Aphivat, the Khmer Times, an English-language newspaper that started up last year, has become fixated with the area, publishing more than a dozen articles amounting to over 10,000 words about the conflict here.
The newspaper has labeled the villagers “opportunists” and “squatters” led by “land gangs” and “instigators“ that pose a “growing threat to plantation agriculture in Cambodia.”
It also published an article under the byline “M.H. Tee” stating that the concession holder, Virtus Green Plantations, had upgraded a 200-meter stretch of road in the remote commune to “alleviate the sufferings of villagers.”
What the Khmer Times has failed to reveal, however, is that its publisher, T. Mohan, is also the founder and CEO of Virtus Group, the parent company of Virtus Green Plantations.
Commonly accepted journalistic codes of ethics provide that the editorial department of a news organization should remain independent of the publisher’s business interests.
“It is ethically dubious for a newspaper to run stories advancing their publishers’ corporate interests without proper disclosure,” Mark Pearson, a professor at Griffith University in Australia and the author of numerous books about media law and ethics, said in an email.
While it is not uncommon for newspapers to promote the products of affiliated businesses, Mr. Pearson said, readers should be made aware of the context in which they are receiving information, and editors should have the final say on the publication’s content.
“In the best of environments an editor is given a high degree of independence to pursue stories without fear or favor in the interests of the public they are serving.”
James Brooke is the Khmer Times’ editor-in-chief. Asked to comment on the newspaper’s ongoing coverage of the dispute in Kampot province, he referred all questions to Mr. Mohan.
“On this one, I am going to defer to the publisher,” he said via email.
(Disclosure: Mr. Brooke briefly served as editor-in-chief of The Cambodia Daily in 2014.)
Mr. Mohan was unavailable for comment Thursday. However, in an interview on April 7, the publisher defended his newspaper’s reporting of the Decho Aphivat land dispute.
“It’s not a conflict of interest,” he said. “We are making facts known as they happen. Villagers are trying to grab land. People have to know. It’s always one side of the story.
“My interest is my interest,” he added. “The plantation is not 100 percent owned by me.”
Two days later, on April 9, Mr. Mohan published an opinion piece about the Decho Aphivat conflict, but once again failed to reveal his interest in the dispute, although he acknowledged having “first hand knowledge” of “some land disputes.”
In the article, Mr. Mohan offers his thoughts on Cambodian land conflicts in general, blaming both villagers and “incompetent local authorities,” while also stating that some “unscrupulous” ELC holders tarnish the image of all others.
“Investments are at stake here,” he writes. “The country’s reputation is at bigger risk if the authorities continue to adopt an armchair approach toward resolving land disputes—after they have been allowed to happen.”
During a visit this week to Decho Aphivat commune—which was established by sub-decree in May 2011, three months after Virtus Green was awarded its ELC there—villagers appeared to be unlawfully extending their land claims into the concession. Newly transplanted crops stood in recently cleared fields as tree trunks smoldered in mounds of burning embers.
Most claimed that they had lived in the area for 10 or more years, though some said they arrived in 2012 or 2013, before retracting those dates on the instructions of other villagers listening in.
Some claimed that student volunteers sent there in 2012 to demarcate land under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s titling project had left for Khmer New Year, promising a return that never eventuated.
Ech Koy, the chief of Decho Pongrok village, where many of the land claims are being made, said it was impossible to keep track of all the new arrivals entering the area.
“There are more than 400 families fighting [with Virtus Green],” she said at her home on Tuesday. “I am only responsible for 100, so how can I solve all their problems?”
Ms. Koy has become a target for people in the area who believe that Virtus Green is paying her to stifle their land claims. The village chief has also been central to many of the Khmer Times reports from Decho Aphivat, with the newspaper attributing to her assertions that villagers are being incited by certain “anarchic” factions among them.
Although a photograph of Ms. Koy appeared in a Khmer Times story earlier this month, she said she had never heard of the newspaper and was unaware of having spoken to any journalists since early 2014.
Decho Aphivat commune chief Chim Soeun has also been quoted by the newspaper, admonishing the “anarchists” for attempting to claim company land, but said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that he had never knowingly spoken with Khmer Times journalists.
“No, I never talked with journalists and I do not know that newspaper,” he said. “I think that Khmer Times publishes my quotes without the truth because I never talked with any newspaper.”
If the Khmer Times is falsely attributing quotes to people while demonizing villagers for the sake of its publisher’s business interests, the newspaper may struggle to retain a readership, according to Mr. Pearson, the media ethics expert.
“A newspaper’s credibility might be damaged by its publishing, without disclosure, stories pushing business interest,” he said.
“This is because the audience loses all trust in the newspaper once it learns that it had a vested interest in the published stories without being transparent about it.”