Some call it tradition. Others call it corruption. But however they explain it, experts and observers believe that “envelope journalism”—the practice of paying reporters cash to attend media events—has created the impression that the Cambodian press is anything but free.
“We do not like it…[but] if we want coverage, we have to pay,” said Him Khortiet, media and communications officer at Cedac, an agricultural study organization. “Sometimes journalists will ask me for a little bit of money …and of course we need journalists to print a story.”
In order to get exposure from certain outlets, Mr Khortiet said he must budget for reporters, giving $10 to print reporters, and $20 for television coverage.
“For print, we do not pay every time, but for TV we have to pay. So we have to be ready,” he said.
According to Mr Khortiet, CTN, Bayon TV and Rasmei Kampuchea Daily were among some of the news outlets that requested the funds.
However, Pen Samitthy, editor-in-chief of Rasmei Kampuchea and president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, condemned the practice, saying it was against company policy and made it difficult for Cambodians to get important interviews.
“We are strict about it…. If you take $5, we do not run the story,” he said. “It is not good in terms of the code of ethics.”
It is easy to look at journalists who take money, but businesses need to share the blame, Mr Pen said. “It’s an old story that businesses cannot do their business, so they pay journalists. Companies are corrupt, journalists are corrupt, so they do not understand how to do this.”
Bayon television administration chief, Huot Kheang Veng, also strictly prohibits taking bribes, but cannot entirely assure that it does not happen, saying journalists are likely to find an opportunity during launch ceremonies, or during the anointment of a government official.
According to Kouch Kevin, executive producer at CTN, these “gifts” are perfectly acceptable and do not hinder on the integrity of a story. “Its normal. As a gift, it is okay, just as long as the journalist does not ask for it, in which case then we’d have a problem,” he said. “It is the same as having a monk over to your house for a blessing, you would provide him a gift for coming.”
Government also defended the payouts, saying the small bribes serve to pay petrol costs, or are simply a courtesy to underpaid journalists.
“It is Cambodian tradition,” said Khieu Kanharith, Minister and the Ministry of Information. “The problem is not the money, the problem is what is being said. You take the money, and that’s fine, but once you turn black into white you betray your profession.”
According to the Press Law, which was adopted by the National Assembly in 1995, any form of bribery for the use of consideration in publishing a story is considered a “grave professional abuse,” though the terminology is ambiguous.
Some reporters are stressed not to bend the rules in order to supplement their incomes, making only $70 a month, said Moeun Chhean Narriddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies. “Not many outlets pay for things like phone calls and transportation,” he said. “Sometimes, their salaries are not enough for them to live on.”
Cambodian news reporter Ban Chork, who works at a Khmer language newspaper he asked be abstained, agreed, saying he considers the payments “extra support money,” not bribery. “If they pay us, we take it,” he said. “We are taught that it is not right, but under the commercial rule, it is. It’s like the price of an advertisement.”
Mr Chork claims that while on assignment in Preah Sihanouk on the weekend of Feb 26, he received $15 per day in per diem from the US Embassy he was told was to cover food. In addition, he said, he received free lodging and transportation.
The US Embassy in Cambodia confirmed that they provided the compensation, though not the dollar amount, and defended that publication of any story was ‘strictly voluntary’ and that the funds were to afford journalists an opportunity to cover a story they may not normally have the means to. “The important distinction here is that the journalists [and their media outlets] are under no obligation whatsoever to run the story if they choose not to do so,” said Mark Wenig, public affairs officer at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, adding that the funds are offered to all local new organizations. “In this country, it’s not only journalists who don’t have the funds to cover stories, it’s also their news organizations which simply don’t have the resources to always get their journalists where the news is.”
“I absolutely don’t feel that offering local journalists assistance to travel, with the caveat that they not print the story, affects their judgment,” he said.
Similarly, the United Nations said that they “reimburse or subsidize out-of-pocket expenses” to journalists, but only does so in advance, and on a case-by-case basis.
“The United Nations in Cambodia does not pay fees to journalists, said a Cambodia-based UN spokesperson. “This approach is in line with best standard practice of both journalism professionals and the UN itself. The UN, globally and in Cambodia, is engaged in the development of independent media and the promotion of press freedom because we believe a free and independent media to be a key component of a functioning society.”
Nonetheless, media experts don’t believe bribes are ever justified. “It is not okay. It is corrupt,” said Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. “[Journalists] should be aware of the principles of the trade. Find another job that gets better pay.”
Businesses and organizations that do not provide journalist compensation have expressed they would not receive fair coverage, such as in October 2010, when clean-water provider Hydrologic Social Enterprises held a conference to announce its launch as a private entity.
“We invited press at the hotel and provided lunch, but they asked directly us this money and when we didn’t have it, said they were ‘disappointed,'” said managing director, Olaf Olsen. “We quickly learned that it [paying] was normal practice in Cambodia. In general the media picture here is imbalanced, far from places I’ve been, like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.”
According to a 2008 survey of 141 Cambodian journalists conducted by rights group Licadho, 25 percent of respondents said they knew journalists who took bribes in exchange for favorable reporting, while 34 percent said they knew colleagues who took a bribe to not write a story at all.
” Predictably, when journalists were asked if they took bribes themselves, only 13 percent admitted they did,” the report continues. “But when asked if they had ever accepted money or gifts for attending a press conference, a third of journalists surveyed said they had, while a further 13 percent didn’t want to say.”
In April 2010, a journalist working for Koh Santepheap Daily for was charged with allegedly extorting money from a wood manufacturer suspected of illegal business dealings. He was eventually released on bail.
Although it is common practice that some businesses will give small amounts of money in order to gain coverage, the issue is seen as a minor one compared with some of the practices taken by the government and lucrative businesses.
“Some government officials hope to conceal bad news, so they give out money,” said Mr Moeun. “If a story is related to corruption or wrongdoing, you could see between $50 to $100 per story,” adding that likewise, if they want more exposure for a story, they will pay for it.
Despite these gloomy practices, some think the tide is turning. “I can say this situation is changing, not so many do it like this anymore,” said Mr Pen. “Journalists and are becoming more respectful to the code of conducts.”
“We are finding good progress,” says Mr Him. “In the last few years, we find that we are [having to] give less and less…. For example, we can make an arrangement to pay every second or third time.”
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)