Next week the official campaign period for the July National Assembly election begins, and with it comes a period of relative media equality for political parties in the state media.
Throughout the 30-day campaign, each of the 11 parties taking part in the election will get to air a 10-minute promotional spot twice a day on state media. Additionally, the National Election Committee will be broadcasting roundtable discussions every day, granting each party an additional 10 minutes of airtime to promote their views.
According to NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha, parties can buy airtime from private TV and radio stations to rebroadcast their promotional spots, so long as it is not rebroadcast more than three times in a day.
But this enforcement of equality extends only to the one-month campaign period, with most parties finding themselves with serious difficulties harnessing the media during the remaining 59 months of each government mandate. A notable exception is the ruling CPP, which opposition parties and observers say thoroughly dominates all forms of media.
“It is far from being equal,” said SRP President Sam Rainsy. “The ruling party has seven TV stations and almost 30 radio stations.”
“There are about two to three hours [of radio time] only that we can rent,” he added. “We don’t campaign much, but [the CPP] campaigns 24 hours a day, and they campaign the whole year.”
Some opposition parties, most notably the SRP and Norodom Ranariddh Party, do have newspapers, but Sam Rainsy noted that the exposure the written word can get you pales in comparison to the power of TV and radio in Cambodia.
According to a February survey by the US-based International Republican Institute, 51 percent of Cambodians make use of radio as their primary source of information and an additional 37 percent get their news primarily from the television. Print media, by contrast, is the primary information source for just 1 percent of the public.
“There is a small number of literate people,” said Keo Chan Rotha, director of the independent FM 95.5 in Siem Reap province, adding that he has given his radio station’s news readers instructions to read slowly and clearly to ensure that listeners can understand the stories.
With so many people relying on TV and radio as their foremost sources of information, the opposition and some observers say the CPP has an unfair share of control over that information.
“The TVs and radios are 80 to 84 percent biased towards the government, and as it is close to the election, it is 90 percent bias,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. He added that about 10 percent of television coverage goes to the CPP’s partner Funcinpec, whereas the SRP received only 2 to 3 percent of coverage, usually negative.
Kek Galabru, president of the local rights group Licadho, said ruling party control is particularly strong over television.
“They control all TVs; they are in the hands of the Cambodian People’s Party,” she said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen himself recently boasted in a speech of controlling multiple stations compared to the opposition’s one.
That one is Beehive Radio FM 105, which has been hosting hour-long programs daily for the SRP, NRP and Human Rights Party.
Beehive Director Mam Sonando said that for the campaign period, he will be providing airtime to the SRP, NRP, HRP, Funcinpec and League for Democracy Party, but could only give each 30 minutes daily at a cost of $2,000 for the month.
For the campaign period, other independent radio stations are selling to opposition parties eager to spread their platform ahead of the ballot.
On May 30, Sovannaphum FM 104 and Mohanokor FM 93.5 began offering airtime at $10 a minute to all parties. Keo Vuthy, director of FM 104, said last week that they had already sold nearly all of their available airtime, and FM 93.5 director Kong Chetra said that the NRP and SRP will be making use of his station.
“This is important,” Kong Chetra said. “If a lot of parties broadcast, voters have options.”
Keo Chan Rotha’s FM 95.5 is also broadcasting a number of political parties ahead of the election for $600 to $900 per month for an hour of airtime daily. However, his station in Kratie province was recently shut down by the Information Ministry. Keo Chan Rotha believes it is because the station was bringing opposition radio to an area that had never had it before, but the ministry maintains that the station had violated an agreement by selling airtime to foreign broadcasters without ministry approval.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith defended the current state of broadcast media, saying the supposition that the CPP controlled the airwaves was incorrect.
“To say that the CPP have more access to the state medias is incorrect,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The state medias have never [spoken] about parties’ policies, nor show party logos.”
“In fact, when we aired the debate at the National Assembly or the Senate, we show both the ruling and opposition parties,” he said.
Khieu Kanharith added that even if the CPP controls a number of media outlets, those stations “never insult or attack the other political parties.” In addition, Khieu Kanharith said, many of the pro-CPP stations cannot be heard around the country, while opposition parties have “monopolized” Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America, which can be heard regionally.
But with parties getting access to media outlets during the campaign period that they are often denied, do they stand much chance of making up ground against the CPP?
Independent analyst Chea Vannath doesn’t think so. “It doesn’t make much difference,” she said of the campaign period. “The airtime is just for one month only. In one month, how can you compete with the ruling party who has had five years—and then it’s not just one party [that gets airtime] but 10.”
(Additional reporting by John Maloy)