Lots of Ceremony, Little Substance on Local News

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.”

 

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