Unbalanced Media Drives Unfair Polls, Critics Say

An outsider surfing through the channels on Cambodian TV might be forgiven for thinking Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP controlled the airwaves.

Click on one channel and a news program on the disabled is intercut with shots of Mr Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany ministering to the ill.

Click on another, a group of rural villagers are receiving rice donations from ruling party officials.

Change stations yet again and a comedian is blasting the country’s opposition party.

And on radio? Save for a handful of stations—two of them US-based—a nearly identical situation exists.

Though this is nothing new, as another election draws near, op­position party members and independent political monitors this week bemoaned a broadcast me­dia landscape that increasingly paints Cambodia as a virtual one-party system.

“The CPP controls all the television. They have access to all the media,” SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said.

“They seem to have control like a communist state, and they use all this media for party propaganda.”

The result, said Mr Chhay and others, is a heavily biased stream of information—one in which the ruling party gets not only the bulk of the attention but all of the praise, while independent and op­posing voices are squeezed out or shot down by pro-ruling party news anchors, talk show hosts and even entertainers.

Mr Chhay said the managed media message even extends to the recording of National Assem­bly debates, which are broadcast on national television. “The broadcast of the [National Assembly] debates are always modified. When the opposition starts talking, raising serious issues, they end it,” he said.

“In a country where a large portion of the population has a limited knowledge, it’s so important to be able to see this [debate]. We are really concerned about this.”

Spokesman for the Human Rights Party, Pol Ham, lamented the media imbalance.

“The CPP can speak 10 hours a day and they will air it, but what about Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha?” he asked. “Ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent of the news focuses on CPP. They control everything: the media, the local authority, the police, the military.”

It’s a charge that Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith vigorously denied this week. “Every­body in Cambodia knows well my stance on the issue,” he said in a Facebook message sent Thursday.

“We have Equity news where oppositions show more than ruling party, plus the debate at the National Assembly,” which he insisted is aired in full.

Instead, said Mr Kanharith, it is opposition-purchased news that tends toward propaganda.

“Airtime bought by political parties, opposition, is full of slander and accusations, not to talk about misinformation,” he said.

For station programmers, however, if their news reports show the CPP in a fawningly positive light, there’s a simpler explanation: The ruling party deserves it.

“We broadcast the ruling party because it’s good news and it’s something that people are always interested in,” said Som Chhaya, deputy director general of CTN.

Mr Chhaya insisted his channel had no particular political affiliation but noted that it was the ruling party who more frequently undertook newsworthy action.

“If the opposition party had good news, we would broadcast about them, too. But mostly their news is small, and people are just not that interested.”

CTN is owned by the Cam­bo­dian conglomerate Royal Group, whose chairman Kith Meng is often seen with Mr Hun Sen.

While a direct assault on freedom of expression is easy to track, its passive erosion is more complex to measure. But where analysts and the opposition agree is that in­equity in media access all but voids the concept of a free and fair election.

“It creates an unfair election en­vironment and electoral process,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

“The voter doesn’t have full information. We encourage them to make educated choices, but they’re only getting information from one side…. It plays a big role, it’s like a constant advertisement. A lot of companies invest in ad­vertisement, and the ruling party does too.”

Perhaps the most visible manifestation in this type of media in­vestment, noted Mr Panha, is the in­cessant focus on the CPP’s “trickle down” policy.

The media message—highlighted frequently in the news with footage of retired soldiers being given land, new military recruits getting T-shirts and kramas, poor villagers receiving kilos of rice and instant noodles—is the population’s dependency on the generosity of the long-ruling CPP.

The broadcast media reinforces the impression that the ruling party is the only one capable of meeting the needs and wants of the community, Mr Panha said.

“Viewers see the party as very generous,” he said. “But what is the implication of this ‘trickle down’ policy? How does this affect our natural re­source? Where does the money come from? What about the community’s sustainability? Why should people only wait for government assistance…. None of this is explained on TV.”

(Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng)


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