Can Cambodia’s media reform? Traditional media is at risk of becoming irrelevant

The elections of 2013 should have been a wakeup call, not only for the Cambodia’s ruling Cambodian People Party (CPP), but also for its allies in the traditional media. In its previous mandates, the CPP was able to effectively shape public opinion in its favor courtesy of its domination of the mainstream media, including local television, radio and newspapers, which more or less served as government mouthpieces. The rapid proliferation of these outlets in the aftermath of the UNTAC elections meant greater dissemination of the government’s policies, activities and accomplishments, and greater alienation of opposition criticism.

Partisan information together with a “muted” political culture and a post-traumatic mentality made most Cambodians apolitical, shying away from policy debates or challenges to the status quo. As a result, prior to the recent 2013 elections, the ruling party could count on increasing support from Cambodia’s electorates at the expense of ever weaker opposition parties.

That situation started to change, however, a few months before the 2013 elections. Many Cambodians began to break out of their culture of fear, silence and political ignorance and embrace civic engagement. They are participating in opposition campaigns, demonstrations, and the elections themselves. The public domain has become a place for political discussion and the expression of dissatisfaction with the government, despite threats and warnings from the authorities. As a result, it comes as no surprise that the ruling party majority in the National Assembly was heavily reduced—from 90 in 2008 to 68 in 2013—with the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) benefiting.

Rise of social media

That election outcome raises questions about the efficacy of traditional media, once instrumental in mobilizing support for the ruling party. Its weakening influence can be explained by the growing discontent at its failure to address obvious shortcomings such as nepotism, cronyism, chronic corruption, Vietnamese migration, deforestation and land grabs, with social media stepping in to fill the vacuum.

The rise of social media as an alternative to, if not an outright replacement for, the pro-government media means that information can no longer be monopolized or concealed. Cambodia’s Internet penetration was estimated by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications at about 3 million Internet users, or 20 percent of the population by 2013, a 42 per cent increase from 2012; of those, over one million users have Facebook accounts.

While Cambodia’s traditional media often runs stale, pro-government content, social media features more varied coverage, and users can comment, share, and express their opinions without fear of censorship. Sensitive issues such as human rights violations and land grabbing—concealed by traditional media—are often discussed online, especially via Facebook. Additionally, the rising popularity of international broadcasters (among them the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Radio France International, citizen journalism, donor-driven media initiatives, foreign-language newspapers (such as the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post) gives news consumers more options and access to independent coverage. As a result of this trend, the opposition now dominates in most of the populous provinces and cities where access to the Internet and information is most prevalent.

Why reform is rational

The diminishing role of traditional media in aggregating electoral support triggered a need for comprehensive media reform, for the sake of both for the government and its media allies. Continuing to generate one-sided news will ultimately push more and more news consumers to new media alternatives. Already the opposition CNRP can point to a total vote that is almost  on a par with that of the ruling CPP, at 2.9 million to 3.2 million. This support will only grow without comprehensive reform, including media reform. Any attempt to muzzle criticism will only strip traditional media of its relevance and further the divisions within society. In this sense, media reform is an efficient way for the government to restore credibility.

Moreover, although information posted online is timely, pluralistic and interactive, it is often unreliable, misleading and provocative, while generally favoring the opposition. Should the CPP fail to respond to this threat, it will likely face further losses at the next elections. Yet suppressing Internet freedom is unrealistic, and would prompt outrage from youths, academia and the international community. Indeed, rights workers and many Internet users regard the ongoing drafting of a cyber-law as an attempt to suppress their Internet freedoms.

A few days before the 2013 elections, the Cambodian government issued a directive that temporarily banned programs from international broadcasters, including Khmer services of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Cambodians immediately condemned the move through Facebook and other social media, echoing criticism by the U.S. government and international media outlets, forcing the government to reverse the ban the following day.

Instead of these ham-fisted attempts at restricting social and independent media, a more effective measure would be to strengthen the value of traditional media, which is more supportive of the CPP.

Media reform is also moral and professional responsibility. While social media has a significant function in contemporary society, it should not be the only source of news 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.” This vital social bond should be reinforced, as informed citizens are the foundation for any democracy.

Content revisit and reform agenda

What does reform mean? In Cambodia it would mean more balanced news coverage, greater space for different views, and accessibility to credible, verifiable resources.

Restoring trust is probably the most challenging task for Cambodia’s ruling elites and traditional media, but it is feasible. The government and the traditional media should work in parallel to achieve this by providing more timely, accurate information to the public and providing a platform for different and even critical views. However, professional content cannot exist with restrictions on freedom of expression. Verbal, physical and legal threats to independent media lead to self-censorship and should thus should be minimized.

Meaningful and constructive debates and policy discussion on a wide range of social issues should also be on the agenda. Silence or attempts at concealment serve the interests of neither the ruling party nor the traditional media. Rather, both should learn to recognize their limitations, make demonstrable efforts to address them, and just as important, justify their actions if problems remain unresolved. Holding officials accountable via traditional and non-traditional media is fundamental to building trust and embedding a culture of transparency.

Information also needs to be made more accessible. Data on institutional spending, project bidding and financial management are rarely available to the public and media. Information that is in the public interest should be made public for verification, and legislation giving citizens and media the right to access it should be introduced in the name of open government, public debate, and social integrity. A freedom of information law has been proposed for 10 years, but to date nothing has come of it.

There are signs of change. Some local television stations, newspapers and radio stations have begun to cover land grabbing, opposition demonstrations, and sensitive issues. This should be applauded. However, there is still significant room for improvement in terms of professionalism and balance. The government has also expressed its commitment for comprehensive reform, covering the media and freedom of expression, and aim to pass the law on freedom of information by 2014. For now, though, this is still in the realm of rhetoric; its true commitment to credible reform remains to be seen.

For a thousand years, Cambodia has been characterized by a culture of secrecy, hierarchical rule and patronage among rulers and government. Any reform, in this regard, cannot take place overnight. It will require patience, political commitment and a collective push for change.

(Photo by RFA: H.E. Khieu Kanharith, Cambodian Minister of Information.)

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