Magazine article Nieman Reports

Cambodia's Newspapers Emerge from a Repressive Era; Lacking International Pressure, Radio and Television in Cambodia Remain under State Control. (International Journalism)

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Cambodia's Newspapers Emerge from a Repressive Era; Lacking International Pressure, Radio and Television in Cambodia Remain under State Control. (International Journalism)

Article excerpt

During the last two years Cambodia's 20-year nightmare of violence, spawned by the spillover of the Vietnam War, has largely abated. Reporting from Phnom Penh on Cambodia's newfound political stability, The New York Times reporter Seth Mydans noted that "many people here see glimmers of hope as the government--both aided and pressured by foreign donors--begins to lay the groundwork for change. An active and liberal civil society has begun to take root, a functioning government administration is being mapped out, and the traumas of the past are beginning to be tentatively addressed."

The Cambodian press has suffered its share of traumas. As part of their genocidal campaign to impose radical agrarian socialism on Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge killed most of the country's intellectuals between 1975 and 1979, including almost all journalists. In 1995, the president of the Khmer Journalists Association said that he knew of only 10 living Cambodian journalists who had worked as journalists before 1975, the year Poi Pot seized power. The Cambodian press today may not be particularly responsible, but it is lively and largely fearless. Given the recent history of Cambodia, this is an achievement in itself.

After a Vietnamese invasion ousted Pol Pot in 1979, the country struggled through 12 years of civil war and Leninist rule under the communist regime of Hun Sen. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords mandated that the international community should oversee Cambodia's transition from a totalitarian to a more democratic society. These accords gave the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) a broad mandate that included keeping the peace and administering democratic elections in 1993. To date, this transition has been rough and incomplete.

Starved for talent after years of civil war and emerging from the shadows of one of history's darkest regimes, Cambodia's press was in dire straits in 1991. The few practicing journalists had either worked for state-owned media under the strict guidance of the Communist government, or been part of the partisan opposition press, much of it based abroad or in refugee camps along the Thai border and backing various armed factions opposed to Hue Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Pnomh Penh boasts a number of printing presses now, but in 1991 there was no media infrastructure. Newspapers had to be printed in Thailand and shipped into Phnom Penh. And a communist culture of control had to be reformed almost overnight with few guidelines beyond the 1993 Constitution's U.N.-imposed press freedom provision. At the end of 1993, U.N.-sponsored elections also brought Prince Norodom Ranariddh's National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) to power in an uneasy coalition with Hun Sen, who served as second prime minister under Ranariddh.

In July 1997, Hun Sen ousted Ranariddh in a coup, thus negating the results of the 1993 election. After the coup, dozens of pro-opposition journalists fled the country. At the same time, Cambodia's most widely recognized press organization, the Khmer Journalists Association, effectively ceased to exist when its chairman, Pin Samkhon, went into exile. That year also saw the pullout of the UNTAC from Cambodia.

Somewhat paradoxically, UNTAC was also supposed to establish a free press. Since 1991, the international community has spent millions of dollars to train local journalists and encourage free expression in Cambodia. Even so, local media are rarely professional or independent by international standards. Radio and television are essentially controlled by the state, and there is no functioning press association to promote editorial independence and establish ethical guidelines.

Most observers believe wild headlines and stories without attributed sources contributed to the political tension that nearly plunged Cambodia back into the darkness of its political past, especially during the Ranariddh/ Hun Sen coalition period from 1993 to 1997. …

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