Poker-faced officials attended dreary meetings, low-ranking police officers were bestowed with promotions, and officials at a meeting in Preah Vihear province lauded Prime Minister Hun Sen’s agricultural policies.
Viewers of state-run TVK’s news Tuesday were also treated to a report on National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s wife, Princess Marie, gaining spiritual merit by releasing a caged bird at a pagoda.
Striking a more robust news note, the TVK football team was shown in action against rival station TV3. TVK won 3-0, the newsreader announced.
Though Khmer-language newspapers published front-page stories on retired King Norodom Sihanouk’s decision to stay in China, Cambodia’s TV news diet this week remained one of officials attending ceremonies, giving gifts to the poor and praising the achievements of the government.
Bland news leaning in the government’s favor is par for the course on many television stations in Cambodia, media watchers say.
“Most [TV] reporters understand professionalism, but they are under the influence of the government,” independent media trainer Moeun Chhean Nariddh said this week.
“Political news is not balanced. It shows only the perspective of the government,” he said, adding that TV journalists rarely tackle substantive stories, much less conduct investigative reporting.
“They have to use the language of the government. They cannot use the words of victims who face problems or injustice,” Moeun Chhean Nariddh added.
As far back as 2001, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report that noted the poor state of Cambodian TV news. “Freedom of expression does not extend to radio and television,” the committee wrote, adding that the government maintains tight control over broadcast news.
Kem Gunawath, the general director of TVK, said he does not understand criticism of his station, adding that it aims to serve the interests of the nation.
“What are the points we are lacking?” Kem Gunawath asked.
“That we don’t curse and attack the government? TVK belongs to the nation, so it must serve the nation,” he said.
“News is about issues of the country, achievements of the government and the government officials who have participated,” he added.
TVK supplements the work of its 33 reporters and cameramen with footage provided by the government’s provincial information departments.
Dy Narin, a reporter with the station who frequently covers Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, said he always looks for the most important point of a story, such as new achievements by officials or new agreements reached.
Government spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said the government does not control the country’s media, adding that censorship is forbidden.
“TV is like radio; they spend a lot of money, and they don’t care about politics. They just want to get money [from advertising],” Khieu Kanharith said by way of explanation for Cambodian television news content.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Bayon television news featured Japanese nationals giving away bicycles, co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng meeting with officials from the International Monetary Fund, and Sok An meeting with US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli.
CTN news on Wednesday served up the usual fare of officials and ceremonies, and closed with a hairdressing competition.
“We report achievements of the government and how officials interact with the people,” Bayon TV Director Sok Ey San said.
“We cover the National Assembly and Senate. That is news,” Sok Ey San said, adding that there were no restraints on his reporters.
While TV media may be officially free in Cambodia, ownership and management appear rather more confined.
TVK is state-run. Hun Mana, Hun Sen’s daughter, was made director of Bayon television and radio in November 2004. CPP Secretary-General Say Chhum was president of Apsara TV, and more recently, Chum Kosal, a prominent CTN political commentator, was appointed an adviser to Hun Sen.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh said he hoped the government would allow a more varied range of voices in television broadcasts, although he said international news coverage by Cambodian stations was generally good.
Som Chhaya, CTN news department director, said his station is independent, but added that politics are sometimes a sensitive issue to cover, and that he is expected to self-censor. “We don’t have censorship of the news, except for major political affairs,” he said. “It is very difficult in our society.”
Som Chhaya said a senior government official who wanted coverage of the many gifts he was to receive from his subordinates for Christmas once called him.
“When I heard that I started to have a headache,” he said.
If he had stuck to the official’s original plan, Som Chhaya said, less well-off viewers might have been offended by the official’s opulence.
To change the story’s angle, Som Chhaya filmed people selling Christmas gifts at the market, and then highlighted the celebration at the official’s home within that context.
“The audience would not be happy because some people don’t have rice to cook,” he said. “But I couldn’t say no.”