In the prelude to and direct aftermath of July’s national election, local Khmer-language media largely ignored the opposition’s growing street rallies and demonstrations.
But during the three days of protests last week, the CNRP was front-page news in all of the major Khmer-language newspapers.
Broadcast media also found new interest in the country’s long-ignored political opposition.
State-owned TVK aired regular coverage of the mass demonstrations and the Cambodia News Channel (CNC), owned by local businessman Kith Meng, invited CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann for an exclusive interview on Friday about the opposition’s desire to restart negotiations with the CPP to end the ongoing political impasse.
Editors at local news outlets said Sunday that the shift in the media’s coverage of politics away from solely focusing on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-ruling CPP is part of efforts to expand their audience following July’s election when the opposition party won nearly half of the more than 6 million votes cast.
“We started broadcasting activities of the opposition party because we wanted to attract the opposition supporters to see the independence of our television channel,” said Som Chhaya, deputy general director of CTN, the parent station of CNC.
“We just want those opposition supporters to turn to watch our channel,” he said.
Pol Saroeun, editor of the popular Koh Santepheap daily newspaper, said that the editorial move away from solely covering the CPP was financial in nature, and done in an effort to attract more readers from both sides of the political divide.
“We have changed our policy to attract more readers,” he said. “No newspaper is 100 percent neutral or independent, we have to improve by [publishing] information without bias,” he said.
However, although images of the CNRP demonstrations now appear on the front pages of previously staunchly pro-CPP newspapers and on TV news programs, the content of the stories remain heavily biased toward Mr. Hun Sen’s party, said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.
As in 1993, when the U.N. sponsored Cambodia’s first democratic elections, pro-CPP media outlets have “continued to maintain their political affiliation to the ruling party by keeping focus on positive side of the government and the negative side of opposition,” Mr. Chhean Nariddh said.
“Before, during and immediately after the election, [there is a policy of] not touching any stories related to opposition. But now, they have to be more professional in order to compete in the media marketplace by following what readers want,” he said.
In the weekend edition of Koh Santepheap, a two-column photograph of opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha leading a march to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh was placed above the fold on the front page. The accompanying headline, running over four columns, said “Change after election = Coup d’etat: United Nations not able to let Cambodia return to tragedy.” The accompanying story argued that the CNRP’s efforts to lobby the international community to intervene in Cambodia’s post-election dispute were futile.
“On October 23, the opposition party used a new trick saying that they are celebrating the 22nd anniversary of Paris Peace Agreement, but in fact the opposition party used this ceremony to incite a movement for not recognizing the government that was formed legally,” Koh Santepheap editorialized, in traditional fashion.
In Friday’s Kampuchea Thmey Daily, which is owned by a daughter of Mr. Hun Sen, CNRP leaders were pictured on the front page delivering a petition to the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. The accompanying headline read “CNRP held demonstrations out of agreed limits,” while the story went on to detail how the CNRP had broken its agreement with the Interior Ministry, noting also that the number of opposition demonstrators had dropped significantly since the first day of protests.
Pen Samitthy, editor-in-chief of the popular Rasmei Kampuchea Daily, whose newspaper focused most of its CNRP demonstrations coverage on the government’s security concerns, said that efforts by his newspaper to be more neutral in its coverage of last week’s demonstrations were stymied by CNRP politicians.
“We faced difficulty in covering this event because the opposition party doesn’t like our newspaper and criticizes it as being pro-CPP, and sometimes CNRP officials refuse to give comments to our reporters,” Mr. Samitthy said.
Chhay Sophal, a journalism lecturer and the editor of the Cambodia News website, said that while editors and publishers are making efforts to appear more balanced in an effort to attract more readers from the growing opposition, they still remain fearful of publishing stories critical of Mr. Hun Sen’s government.
“This is media competition so they try to attract their readers and viewers: that is why they change their coverage. They show the image [of the CNRP], but still criticize” the party, he said.
“They are still scared, that is why even though they show the image, the content is still giving favor to the government.”