Website Names Hidden Hands Behind the News

Cambodians generally accept media reports as fact and, despite a surging reliance on the Internet for news, many are still getting information from traditional media outlets aligned with the ruling CPP, according to new research conducted by two freedom-of-information organizations.

In conjunction with Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) on Wednesday launched the website “Who Owns The Media,” the product of three months of research that concluded that the “Cambodian media market is highly concentrated” in the hands of few.

Clothilde Le Coz, the project’s senior researcher, stressed that the study did not analyze the content of news, but went on to present the findings through the lens of the proverb “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

“You have four main companies or owners that actually speak to 83.4 percent of the audience. Among them, the Cambodian Broadcasting Service is by far the biggest media company in Cambodia reaching out to 47.7 percent of the audience,” Ms. Le Coz said, referring to a firm owned by Kith Meng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, that controls the popular television networks MyTV, CTN and CNC.

“This makes Kith Meng one of the most influential media owners with potentially the highest leverage on public opinion in Cambodia,” states a press release accompanying the website’s launch.

According to the research, Ing Chhay Nguong, the politically unaffiliated owner of Hang Meas TV, has the second-largest cross-media audience share, followed by the prime minister’s daughter Hun Mana, who controls Bayon TV and the Kampuchea Thmey newspaper, and Seng Bunveng, the controversial owner of ABC Radio who warned that “blood would flow through the streets” if the opposition CNRP won the 2013 election.

“You have four owners that actually have an influence over most of the Cambodian media audience, so there is an impact on pluralism and media independence,” Ms. Le Coz said.

Of the 27 prominent media owners studied, at least eight are described as being affiliated with the CPP (as advisers or on government payroll), while two are aligned with opposition parties and nine are “business or political tycoons.” Owners operating in all sectors of the media—TV, radio, print and online—are rare, the report finds, with only Ms. Mana and CPP Vice President Say Chhum active across all four.

Ms. Le Coz said the content being delivered by media outlets is generally accepted as fact.

“There is a very high trust in media from the Cambodian people. So what is read, what is seen and what is listened to is much, much believed,” she said. “Skepticism is not really there from the audience, so when it comes to ownership and concentration, it really does matter in this context.”

The 1995 Press Law states that no individual can own more than two newspapers and that no foreigner can own more than 20 percent of the market, theoretically ensuring plurality in the media landscape. However, Sok Sam Oeun, a legal expert who served as an adviser to “Who Owns The Media,” said at the launch on Wednesday that the law was not detailed enough to effectively regulate the market.

“In this law, it is not clear what is meant by owner. What is the number of shares? Does it refer to the CEO, the board of directors?” Mr. Sam Oeun said. “It is not clear, so the power is just handed to the Ministry of Information to evaluate.”

Another speaker at the event was Soy Sopheap, owner of the popular Deum Ampil franchise, a founding shareholder in the online service Fresh News and, according to CCIM, an Information Ministry employee. Mr. Sopheap has been used by Prime Minister Hun Sen as a political fixer and has long been accused of projecting a pro-CPP bias through his editorial departments.

“They used to say that Mr. Soy Sopheap was affiliated with CPP; actually, I am more affiliated with the CNRP,” he said, responding to questions about his perceived bias.

“You all can say that if there is no criticism of the government, then you can’t have democracy, but Cambodia is very different, ladies and gentlemen. We are in Cambodia, we are taking baby steps. If we want to criticize the government, we have to have a certain way to criticize the government,” he said.

Next to Mr. Sopheap on the panel was Chea Sundaneth, founder of the Women’s Media Center, best known for its radio station FM102. Asked what challenges she faced in maintaining the integrity of the center, she said the biggest problem was retaining staff as cash-flush, well-connected outlets enter the market.

“When tycoons start TV stations, they double the pay and steal my staff,” she said, adding that her stance against running advertisements for alcohol or cigarette companies made it impossible to compete with the newcomers.

The Khmer Times newspaper, whose publisher, T. Mohan, displays a robust CPP bias in regular opinion pieces, and PNN, owned by CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, have drawn staff away from a number of established outlets upon entering the market over the past two years.

May Titthara, an accomplished reporter from The Phnom Penh Post, recently moved to the Khmer Times with a number of his peers. He told the audience on Wednesday that while Mr. Mohan was copied on internal emails, he had little to do with the newspaper’s editorial operations.

“We don’t get feedback from the owner,” he said. “But we do get feedback from the prime minister’s cabinet. They tell us when they think a story is incorrect, but the owner, he encourages us to stay the same.”

Sek Barisoth, president of the Cambodian Journalists Council for Ethics, was asked whether he thought reporters should declare their political affiliations when writing political articles. He said that in the case of opinion pieces, a byline was sufficient.

“Unless you are totally new, by having a name, the public already knows your political affiliation,” he said. “If it is a news story, truth is truth. There is only one truth, and if it is not fulfilled, it means you do not respect your code of conduct.”

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