PHNOM PENH — Finally, a good story from the newsstands of Phnom Penh, and this one's not a rumor: The newspapers are getting better. Previously, you could expect little more than obscenities, libelous invective, calls to violence and rumor-mongering when you picked up a Cambodian newspaper. Now you can actually read a bit of, well, news.
The newspapers were so bad that some people were not sure United Nations peacekeepers did the right thing when, in 1991-93, they freed the press from communist-style control as part of their mandate to end Cambodia's civil war. While the recent improvements should not be exaggerated--many journalists are still inept and corrupt--they show that the newspapers can help Cambodia democratize by expanding the tiny flow of information and curbing the abuses of authorities.
For example, Prime Minister Hun Sen's formerly communist party hoards information to maintain its grip on power, but the newspapers are prying the doors open. The papers are especially important, since the party controls most of the country's broadcast media and has rejected opposition-party requests for TV and radio licenses.
The political stability of the past two years has helped. Journalists feared for their lives when hostility among the parties of Hun Sen, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy peaked. Almost all newspapers had to accept subsidies from a political party--they still do--because Cambodia's primitive economy provided a meager advertising base. Serving their masters, journalists routinely wrote stories lambasting political rivals. A coup in 1997 pummeled Ranariddh's party, which, since the 1998 election, has quietly cooperated as the junior partner in Hun Sen's coalition government. Sam Rainsy leads the opposition.
As the political infighting has subsided, journalists are paying more attention to professional instead of political causes. The crudest insults--those comparing political figures to animals and sexual parts--have mostly disappeared from the newspapers. Even those that still unashamedly function as party mouthpieces, such as the pro-Hun Sen Chakraval (Universe) and the pro-Sam Rainsy Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience), are more restrained.
"Before, many newspapers published only opinions, but now they have information, news," says Pen Samitthy, the editor of the best-selling daily Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia). "They can distinguish what is opinion and what is news." Containing the most news, Rasmei Kampuchea is the most professional Khmer-language newspaper, though it has a tabloid orientation with front-page staples like graphic photos of murder victims. It is thought to be the only Khmer-language newspaper financed mostly, if not solely, through advertising. It is owned by local tycoon Teng Boon Ma, a Hun Sen buddy. Readers say the newspaper is generally pro-Hun Sen in its political coverage, but steers clear of blatant bias on many issues. Sometimes, it gets in (not-too-strong) criticism of government corruption and abuse of power. It has established a reputation for some degree of accuracy.
The newspaper's main rival, Koh Santepheap (Island of Peace), has a reputation for being libelous, sensationalist and pro-Hun Sen. But while many believe Koh Santepheap is still subsidized by Hun Sen party members, last year it started moving toward the Rasmei Kampuchea model of greater restraint, neutrality and of mirroring the general public sentiment on issues.
The vernacular newspapers also are doing more reporting on human rights abuses, including illegal seizures of land from peasants by military officers and lynchings of suspected criminals by street mobs encouraged by the police. "Rasmei Kampuchea and Koh Santepheap support us," says Thun Saray, head of the human rights group ADHOC. Most newspapers continue to report on the fallout from last year's brutal attacks on two women who were said to be the mistresses of Hun Sen and a close aide, Svay Sitha. Many Cambodians blame the jealous wives of the two leaders for the attacks, but no arrests have been made.
Newspapers are paying more attention to balance and fairness. When an accusation is made against someone, comment from the accused is included in stories. Papers are more restrained in publishing stories and photos of rape victims and of underage victims of crimes, says Chhour Sokheang, who coordinates local media training for the Asia Foundation. He says the writing has improved.
Besides political stability, the recent improvements in Cambodian journalism result from:
* Greater commercialization of the leading newspapers as they compete for advertisers and readers. Readers are more demanding and now "want not only opinion but also what happened and where," said Samitthy. After doing surveys on readers' preferences, his paper expanded its international-news section and trimmed the entertainment section.