Cambodia’s Changing Media Landscape: Reformed or Debilitated? By Theara Khoun, CICP Research Fellow

Cambodia’s Changing Media Landscape: Reformed or Debilitated?

 

 

 

Note: This article was published in the Cambodian Communication Review 2014 at the Department of Media and Communication, Royal University of Phnom Penh.

INTRODUCTION
The elections of 2013 should have been a wakeup call for real reforms, not only for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), but also for its allies in the traditional media sector. In the previous mandates, the CPP was able to effectively shape public opinions in its favor courtesy of its domination over the mainstream media, including local television, radio and newspapers, which more than less serve as government’s mouthpieces. The rapid proliferation of these outlets in the aftermath of the UN-organized elections in 1993 means greater dissemination of the governments’ policies, activities and achievements, and greater alienation of alternative views, especially from the opposition. Partisan information together with ‘muted’ political culture and post-traumatic mentality made most Cambodians apolitical, shying them away from engaging in policy debates and challenging the status quo. As a result, prior to the recent elections, the ruling party could mobilize increasing support from its electorates at the expense of weakened opposition parties.1
However, since a few months before the 2013 elections, the situation has begun to change quite significantly. Many Cambodians have started to break out of the culture of fear, silence and political ignorance and move toward a culture of civic engagement.2 They actively participated in political campaigns, demonstrations, and the elections themselves. The public domain has become a common place for political discussion and expression of dissatisfaction with the government’s failure and inaction.3 As a consequence, it comes as no surprise that the CPP’s seats in the National Assembly were drastically reduced – from 90 in 2008 to 68 in 2013 – while the remaining 55 seats went to the sole opposition in the parliament, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

THE RISE OF NEW MEDIA ALTERNATIVES

The election outcome per se questions the efficacy of mass media that was once instrumental in mobilizing support for the incumbent ruling party.4 Deterioration of its power grip can be explained by growing discontents with failure to address major social and political issues, echoed by a growing youth population and social media outreach, leading many to be critical of and disgruntled with those in power.
The rise of social media as a better alternative, if not substitution, to the pro-government media means information can no longer be monopolized, concealed and manipulated. Low yet fast-growing Internet penetration in the country is estimated at about 2.7 million Internet users, or about 18% of the population;5 of this figure, over one million users have Facebook accounts, not to mention other quite popular social media such as Twitter and YouTube.6 While traditional media (read: pro-government media) often generate pro-government and obsolete contents, social media features more varied contents, and users can comment, share, and express their opinions without fear of censorship. Sensitive issues such as human rights violations and land grab, which are concealed in traditional media, are often accessible online, especially via Facebook. In addition, increasing popularity of international broadcasters such as the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Radio France International, citizen journalism, donor driven media initiatives, and such foreign language newspapers as the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post provide news consumers with better alternatives and wider access to more independent news coverage. As a result, the CNRP dominates in most of the populous provinces/ capital where access to the Internet and information is most prevalent.

WHY ARE MEDIA REFORMS A RATIONAL MOVE?
The irrelevance of traditional media in drumming up electoral support for the ruling party should trigger a need for comprehensive media reforms for both the government and its politically allied media. First, to continue to generate one-sided news will compel more and more news consumers to substitute traditional media with new media alternatives. Despite alleged election irregularities skewed toward the ruling party, the CNRP constituents are almost the same size of the CPP supporters, i.e. 2.9 vs. 3.2 million, respectively. This pro-opposition’s support will continue to surge should comprehensive reforms, including media reforms, with a solid political commitment, does not take place. Any attempt to silence the voices of the opposition and their supporters will only make the society even more deeply divided. Media reforms, in this sense, are an efficient strategy to reinvigorate its credibility, thereby ensuring more readership/viewership.
Second, despite prompt, pluralistic and interactive information posted online, some contents, which are subject to unreliability, propaganda and provocation in nature, may put the CPP in a disadvantage position. The growth of Internet users at the current pace without any proper policy intervention will make the party vulnerable to losing more support in the next elections. Yet, any attempt to suppress cyber freedom is unrealistic and unpopular, prompting unpleasant responses from youths, academia and the international community. At present, rights workers and many Internet users regard the ongoing drafting of a cyber-law as an attempt to suppress Internet freedom.7 A few days before the 2013 elections, the government issued a directive to temporarily ban programs from international broadcasters, including VOA and RFA Khmer services. In response, the Cambodian public immediately voiced their condemnation online, echoed by the US government and international media outlets, resulting in the government’s reversal of the ban the following day.8 Thus, instead of restricting social media and independent media outlets, a decent counter-balance measure is to strengthen the value of local mass media, the CPP traditional base.
Media reforms are also to do with moral and professional responsibility. While social media has significant roles in contemporary society, it should not be the only news reference for citizens in a democracy. William E. Todd, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, once said, “They [Cambodian citizens] expect the media to act as their eyes and ears, investigating issues and problems that are important for the people to know about.”9 Hence, this vital social bond should be reinforced, as well-informed citizens are a foundation to any democracy.

CONTENT REVISIT AND REFORM AGENDA
What do media reforms mean? They mean more balanced news coverage, wider space for pluralistic views, and more accessibility to credible, verifiable sources.
Gaining trust from the public, especially the CPP non-constituents, is probably the most challenging task for Cambodian ruling elites and traditional media; yet it is feasible. First, the government and mass media should work in tandem to ensure the dissemination of more timely and accurate information and to provide a platform to voice alternative views. However, content improvement cannot occur with a restricted space for freedom of expression. In this sense, threats to independent media and media practitioners should be minimized. Such threats would create an atmosphere of self-censorship and naturally limit critical and alternative views. Second, meaningful and constructive debates and policy discussion on social and political issues should be on the agenda. Silence is not good to both the ruling party and the mass media; instead they should face with and demonstrate efforts in addressing the problems, and justify their responses and decision if problems remain unresolved. Competent officials’ proper clarification of issues or allegation via traditional and non-traditional media is fundamental in this trust building process and seemingly embeds the culture of transparency and accountability.
Third, in line with these reforms, well-defined institutional procedures to access public and classified information should be established. Access to information in Cambodia is customarily eased by personal contacts and relationships rather than through institutionalized and translucent mechanisms (Leos, 2009).10 Information related to institutional expenditure, project bidding and financial management, for instance, is largely off limit to the public and media.11 Hence, governmental information and data that are of public interests should be publicized, and legislation granting citizens and the media the right and freedom to access to such information should be adopted and implemented, thereby fostering an open government, public debate, and social integrity. Effort in drafting a law on access to information has been ongoing in the past 10 years, but thus far its scope and development still remain at large.12

CONCLUSION
In the aftermath of the 2013 elections, the government and traditional media might have realized the repercussions of their obsolete and one-sided media strategies, as witnessed by some recent reforms. Some local televisions, newspapers and radio stations have begun to cover land grab, CNRP-led protests and demonstrations and other sensitive issues to some extent, which should be applauded and encouraged. However, there is still room for improvement in terms of professionalism and balanced news reporting. The government has also expressed its commitment to comprehensive reforms, including improving access to information and freedom of expression and aimed to pass a law on access to information by 2017. Nevertheless, despite rhetoric of deep reforms, its commitment to credible reforms still remains to be seen. For thousands of years of its history, Cambodia has been characterized by the culture of secrecy, hierarchical rule and patronage among rulers and within its governments. Any reform, in this regard, cannot take place over night. It requires some degrees of patience, political commitment and collective actions to demand for change.

References

1. Hun Sen’s CPP won 64 out of the 123 seats in the National Assembly in 1998, 73 seats in 2003, and a landslide victory, with 90 seats, in 2008 before it plummeted to just 68 seats in 2013.
2. Khoun, Theara, “Cambodia: Politics and a Legacy of Trauma,” Middle East-Asia Project, Middle East Institute, 7 January, 2013, http://www.mei.edu/content/cambodiapolitics-and-legacy-trauma.
3. Ibid.
4. Meyn, Colin “Virtual Democracy,” Southeast Asia Globe, 11 November, 2013, http://sea-globe.com/ virtual-democracy-social-media-elections-cambodia-cpp-cnrp/.

5. “Cambodia Reports 60 Pct Rise in Internet Users Last Year, Xinhua, 14 March, 2013, http://news.xinhuanet. com/english/sci/2013-03/14/c_132234173.htm. However, ITU puts it lower at 5% in 2012, http://www.internet¬worldstats.com/asia/kh.htm.
6. As of September 2013, there were about 1.1 million Facebook users in Cambodia, http://geeksincambodia. com/infographic-facebook-in-cambodia/.
7. Khoun, Theara, “Internet Users Fear Online Suppression With Draft of Cyber Law,” Voice of America, 1 December, 2012, http://www.voacambodia.com/content/internet-users-fear-online-suppression-with-draft-of-cyber-law/1556142.html.
8. Soeung, Sophat, “Social Media’s Growing Influence on Cambodian Politics,” East-West Center, Asia Pacific Bulletin 222, 23 July, 2013, http://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/ social-media’s-growing-influence-cambodian-politics. 
9. Todd, E. William, “Media Freedom Is Crucial for Cambodia’s Democracy,” 9 August, 2013, http://blogs.usem¬bassy.gov/todd/2013/08/09/media-freedom-is-crucial-for-cambodia’s-democracy/.
10. Leos, Raymond, “Access to Information in Southeast Asia and Cambodia,” 2009, http://www.cchrcam¬bodia.org/admin/media/report/report/english/2009-01-08-%20Access%20to%20Information%20in%20 Southeast%20Asia%20and%20Cambodia-%20EN.pdf.
11. Ibid.
12. Meyn, Colin and Hul, Reaksmey, “Freedom of Information Law Still Unrealized,” 5 December, 2013, http:// www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/freedom-of-information-law-still-unrealized-48639/.