News of the Opposition Met With Media Blackout

Scanning the contents of Tuesday’s leading Khmer-language newspapers and news websites, one would have little idea that at least 3,000 opposition party supporters marched through the streets in one of the largest demonstrations of its kind, holding placards demanding electoral reform, or that opposition leader Kem Sokha challenged Prime Minister Hun Sen to a TV debate ahead of the July election, or that U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi was in town.

It was not a slow news day, yet such stories were surprisingly absent.

While the country’s TV channels and radio stations are bastions of ruling party support, local newspapers and websites have shown a modicum of latitude in the political stories they publish.

That was not the case Tuesday.

The editor of one online news site, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said that the self-censorship on display was probably due in part to verbal instructions from a staff member at the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit.

“An official from the Council of Ministers called and told me that the superiors don’t want to have Mr. Surya Subedi’s voice and activities printed and reported,” the editor said.

“What I have learned is that all online and print newspapers were asked not to report about this too, not just my organization.”

Another reporter for a leading Khmer-language newspaper, who was also afraid to be named for fear of workplace retribution, said he had written an article for his publication about the Cambodia Nation­al Rescue Party (CNRP) demonstration, which included details about a minor clash between some marchers and police officials. The story was uploaded to the newspaper’s website on Monday morning, but mysteriously removed by lunchtime.

“My article about the CNRP march for [National Election Committee] reform was removed from the website during lunch,” the reporter said, adding that he did not know why his story had been scrapped.

Neither Koh Santepheap nor Kampuchea Thmey Daily, which is owned by a daughter of Prime Minister Hun Sen, made any mention of the march, which saw people gather at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park and march through the city to the European Union’s offices, where CNRP acting president Kem Sokha had talks with E.U. Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautain, before moving on to a meeting with Mr. Subedi.

Rasmei Kampuchea Daily newspaper bucked the trend, printing a front-page story saying only that the CNRP had flouted the law by allowing more than 100 people walk from Freedom Park to the E.U. and U.N. offices.

Khiev Navy, editor-in-chief of Kampuchea Thmey, said his newspaper received no instructions from the Council of Ministers’ press office, and that the decisions to run new stories lies solely with his editors.

“In Cambodia, we have both pro and opposition newspapers. Since my newspaper supports the government, I, as editor-in-chief, use the right not to report about [the CNRP],” Mr. Navy said.

Defending the pro-government bias of his newspaper, Mr. Navy pointed out that the opposition newspaper fails to report on the government’s successes.

Soy Sopheap, director-general of the DAP Media Center, said his site reported the arrival of Mr. Subedi on Sunday and that there was nothing new to add on his visit. As for the CNRP protest, which was not covered by DAP, “nobody can order me to do this or not do that,” he said.

Tith Sothea, vice president of the Press and Quick Reaction Unit, declined to comment Tuesday. Ek Tha, a staff member at the unit, also declined to comment.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said: “We encourage the media to cover what they see, what they heard and share that information with the people…. We want them to be ethical and professional.”

Earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders said in its annual Press Freedom Index that Cambodia’s media environment is in a “critical” state, and that “since 2011, news organizations, in particular independent local and foreign radio stations, have been subjected to a policy of censorship orchestrated by an increasingly ruthless information ministry.”

Cambodian Club of Journalists president Pen Samitthy agreed that the culture of self-censorship among Khmer-language media organizations was a concern.

“Yes, of course self-censorship is a big issue that local media in Cam­bodia should discuss, and should release themselves from such kind of self-censorship,” Mr. Samitthy said. “I see that the degree of self-censorship—we can say that it increased. So at the last World Press Freedom Day we discussed this.”

Mr. Samitthy said he did not believe that the government or ruling party had any control over the media, but that there are certain newspapers that have “sympathy” with the government.

Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that self-censorship problem among Cambodia’s press was nothing new.

“Years ago, I was told from time to time that a person or official from the Office of the Council of Ministers would tell TV editors not to broadcast this piece of news, or what have you. This doesn’t surprise me.”

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