Opposition Newspapers Losing Their Bite

After an SRP-affiliated newspaper shut its doors, two other publications fear attacking the government.

The voice of Cambodia’s opposition has been muffled after leading SRP-affiliated newspaper Mon­eaksekar Khmer shut its doors last week and Khmer Machas Srok publisher Hang Chakra was imprisoned on de­famation charges, publishers and opposition members said this week.

Khmer Machas Srok is one of only two remaining opposition-affiliated newspapers, down from at least six at the beginning of 2008. Representatives of both publications said this week that they would shut down their presses if the government continues to apply pressure.

Chum Sophal, editor-in-chief of Khmer Machas Srok, said that his newspaper has tempered its criticism since Mr Chakra was imprisoned.

“For security reasons and the longevity of the newspaper, we are reducing the number of articles that criticize the government, otherwise the government will charge us and we will have to close the newspaper” Mr Sophal said.

He added that he was dismayed to hear that other opposition-affiliated newspapers are also considering closing up shop.

“If there were many opposition-affiliated newspapers, we would feel more comfortable.

New Liberty News publisher Lim Kayhong said Tuesday that his newspaper has also begun toning down criticism of the government, and is considering shutting down operations.

“My newspaper is afraid of the government in the current situation,” he said. “We are reducing articles criticizing the government. The situation is not good for us because if we are strong [against the government] we will share the fate of Hang Chakra and [Mon­eaksekar Khmer publisher] Dam Sith.”

Mr Kayhong added that readership of his newspaper seems to be declining. “It is not a good market for opposition newspapers right now. Readers have stopped supporting opposition newspapers.”

In March of last year, Thach Ket, publisher of the SRP-affiliated Sralanh Khmer, defected to the ruling party. Voice of Khmer Youth newspaper editor-in-chief Keo Sothea defected to Fun­cinpec in 2003, before switching allegiances to the CPP last year. Both men are now undersecretaries of state with the Ministry of Information.

Mr Sothea, who still serves as an adviser to Khmer Youth, said Thursday that opposition newspapers are no longer relevant.

“Now there is no advantage to being an opposition newspaper. Before, we opposed in the name of democracy, but now we have democracy, even if it isn’t perfect yet,” he said.

Khmer Nation newspaper also closed its doors two months ago, citing government pressure. How­ever, a newspaper representative who declined to be named said Thursday that his newspaper will soon resume printing in order to take the place of the shuttered Moneaksekar Khmer.

According to a briefing paper from local rights group Licadho released in May, 13 of 27 newspapers had a perceived biased towards the ruling CPP-only three were perceived as neutral.

The balance in Cambodia’s electronic media might be even more tilted.

All of Cambodia’s television stations and the majority of its radio stations are widely perceived as being biased toward the government and ruling party, according to the same Licadho report.

In the campaign period ahead of the 2008 election, according to a study from the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, the government and its various wings, combined with the ruling coalition CPP and Funcinpec parties, received a total of about 74 hours of primetime broadcast space for direct speeches. Opposition parties received no more than 12 hours each.

SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said Thursday that his party is currently broadcasting just an hour of programming each day on the 93.5 FM radio station.

However, he added that government pressure would not silence opposition parties. “The government can pressure the opposition parties but they can’t put pressure on the voters and critics of the government,” Mr Sovann said. “Any pressure will only make opposition parties grow stronger.”

Human Rights Party Secretary-General Yem Ponhearith said that his party also has only one hour of daily programming on Beehive Radio to advertise its party, and has no affiliated newspapers.

“Without radio and television, it is difficult to disseminate our political agenda,” Mr Ponhearith said. “There is no balance between the ruling party and the opposition parties…. We don’t have enough of a voice because we don’t have affiliated media, and so we have to try and meet people directly instead.”

Without a strong opposition voice in the media, democracy will suffer, political observer Chea Vannath said by telephone Thursday.

“In a healthy democratic society, we need different opinions, different views-not just one view, not just complacency,” she said. “If not, it affects the efforts of the government to strengthen democracy.”

She added that democracy depends on the participation of the people. “The ‘people’ here means media, the opposition, civil society, NGOs, all of that.”

Licadho President Kek Gala­bru said by telephone Thursday that she was dismayed by the apparent decline in opposition media, as well as the recent trend in defamation and disinformation charges against journalists critical of the government.

“I am so sad for that,” she said. “We need the opposition. In a democratic country, the opposition is strong, to be able to make checks and balances.”

Council of Ministers spokes­man Phay Siphan denied that the government has placed any pressure on opposition-affiliated media outlets.

“They are free to say anything, except don’t cause any public disorder and don’t cause damage to national security,” he said by telephone Thursday.

Mr Siphan added that the government uses defamation and disinformation charges to ensure that the press is doing its job.

“We want those newspapers to abide themselves by professionalism and a code of ethics,” he said. “We want to protect the audience as receiving factual information.”

Government spokesman and Min­ister of Information Khieu Kan­harith said by e-mail Thurs­day that the media must be more professional.

“Freedom of expression doesn’t mean you can invent a story,” he said. “If the opposition newspapers express their political opinion there won’t be any problem at all, but distorting the news or inventing news affecting the reputation of someone won’t serve the freedom of expression at all.”

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