While Cambodia enjoys a “freewheeling press” and a government that is becoming more tolerant of its newspaper critics, TV and radio still lag behind in political reporting, according to a recent report.
“Freedom of expression does not extend to radio and television,” said the report, released this week by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “The government maintains tight control over most broadcast news.”
But broadcast media professionals say they’re not biased toward the government. They just don’t want to make waves.
Kem Gunawadh, news director of state-run TVK, said that as a state employee, it is his duty to obey government policy.
“I am not a politician,” Kem Gunawadh said. “My job is as one official of the government staff.”
TVK news aims to cover the activities of senior officials and “show the good work of the government,” he said. Coverage is generally decided by the Ministry of Information, which briefs the station directors once a week, he said. TVK also covers stories at the invitation of senior officials, often of the politicians performing good works or making speeches, he said.
The station does not produce investigative stories or stories about official corruption, for instance, unless instructed to do so by the Information Ministry, Kem Gunawadh said.
Information Ministry Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith said money—not politics—shapes broadcast news.
The kind of in-depth reporting newspapers can indulge in is too expensive for broadcast media, he said. And TV and radio, unlike newspapers, have to be more wary of breaking the ministry’s rules and running the risk of a 30-day suspension, he said.
As a station director, “you have to think of your profit,” he said. “You cannot close down the station for one month.”
When it comes to controversial political issues, Kem Gunawadh said he leaves it up to his “boss” how to report the news. “We would ask Khieu Kanharith to make a decision,” he said. “It is not our decision because it affects the whole society,” he said.
Stories critical of the government run contrary to the station’s policy of advancing peace and cooperation in Cambodia, he said.
It was for that reason that Kem Gunawadh decided—with the approval of the Ministry of Information—not to broadcast a speech to the National Assembly last December by opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
In the speech, Sam Rainsy accused the government of further impoverishing Cambodia by mismanaging the country’s finances. Normally all National Assembly speeches are broadcast on state TV and radio.
Kem Gunawadh said the speech was inflammatory and would have hurt the political stability Cambodia currently enjoys.
“If we telecast [things] like this we make the good situation of the political climate not good,” he said.
Apsara Radio Director Som Sarun agreed.
“We broadcast news that could be an advantage for the people, not news talking about instigating violence or vocal attacks,” he said.
In general Apsara restricts its political news coverage to about 10 percent of its broadcasts, he said.
“We have limited our political news because we don’t want anyone to accuse us of having a political bias.”
Apsara avoids aggressively reporting stories that might provoke controversies, Som Sarun said. Like TVK, Apsara covers news at the invitation of senior officials. Som Sarun maintained that policy did not undermine the station’s independence.
“We are not biased,” he said. “We broadcast whatever news we get.”
A TV cameraman, who asked not to be named, said he sets out to deliver fair, unbiased news, but constraints of money end up determining how he does his job.
The cameraman said he covers stories only by invitation. He usually gets between 5,000 and 10,000 riel (about $1.25 to $2.56) per story, plus free food and transport.
On his current salary, he couldn’t afford the cost of running his motorbike if he didn’t accept pay-offs, he said.
“You see, we cannot live on 30,000 riel a month,” he said.
But that does not mean he is biased, the cameraman said.
“If any official invites us to go with them, we will go to take pictures, even if they are opposition officials,” he said. “But they have never invited us, so how can we go?”
Opposition party members say they can’t have a voice in broadcast media unless they are able to run their own radio and TV stations. But repeated applications for licenses have been denied by the government. In February the party began a once-weekly one-hour pirate radio broadcast from an undisclosed location.
Khieu Kanharith said the opposition already has plenty of avenues for putting its views across. He said “70 percent” of TV broadcasts of National Assembly debates are dominated by opposition speeches. And enough existing radio stations favor the Sam Rainsy Party line.
“Just because you are the opposition party [you think] you can have radio,” he said. “[But] Sam Rainsy has Radio Free Asia. People can listen to that.”
But You Thip, 39, a Phnom Penh motodop, doesn’t buy it.
“The CPP controls everything,” he said Tuesday. “As far as I know the opposition party has never had a say on the radio or TV. I have never heard local radio or TV criticizing the government [but] they still do bad deeds. ”
But that kind of uncritical reporting doesn’t seem to have much appeal to viewers.
“I don’t like political news,” said Hean Ngoeun, 22, of Prey Veng province, who described coverage as “boring.”
“I only want to watch movies on the TV because I want a happy time.”