Eak Yuthea Reak went to Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh on Friday clutching a small piece of paper inscribed with seven names. He was there to collect the national exam results of a group of friends who couldn’t bear the stress of finding out their scores in person.
Speaking on the first day of the opposition’s three-day mass demonstration in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park last month, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann announced to an electrified crowd that the party would be seeking its own television station in negotiations with the ruling CPP.
“This will be the CNRP’s television station,” Mr. Sovann said to loud cheers from the crowd.
“We will broadcast what is true and let the others exaggerate the news.”
With the country’s nine CPP-aligned free-to-air television stations having almost failed to acknowledge the very existence of the CNRP during July’s election campaign, Mr. Sovann’s words struck a chord with opposition supporters whose views and interests are studiously ignored by almost all national broadcast media.
In the two days of negotiations that followed, hopes that the opposition would secure a more balanced media landscape ebbed as the talks bogged down.
Opposition chief whip Son Chhay said Thursday that while the CNRP did not raise the demand for an independent new television station during the negotiations, the party was still committed to securing a balanced broadcast media through fundamental change in the country’s political culture.
“In a democratic environment, there’s no need to own a television station. Our aim now is to have a media liberated from CPP control,” he said.
“If there is a state-run television channel that broadcasts all the events in society—including those of the opposition—we would not need a television station.”
The opposition’s 55 elected National Assembly members are refusing to sit in parliament until Prime Minister Hun Sen and his 68 CPP lawmakers agree to talks on reforms on how the country is governed.
Calls for Cambodia’s broadcast media to be more representative are not new. But years of attempts by the opposition to balance national radio and TV stations either owned or enamored by Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP have failed due to stonewalling by licensing authorities beholden to the ruling party.
“In the past, we have tried to ask for radio stations,” Mr. Chhay said. “[CPP Information Minister] Khieu Kanharith always said they were full with no frequencies available, but then he continued to give out many more [licenses] to other people.”
“It’s been the same thing with television licenses. [Mr. Kanharith] gives out so many—Kith Meng has at least three stations now—but these people have to work for the CPP, and have to work for CPP propaganda.”
Mr. Meng, who has close links to Mr. Hun Sen, is the chairman of local conglomerate Royal Group and owner of the Cambodian Television Network, Cambodian News Channel and MyTV stations. Mr. Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana, owns the popular Bayon television station, and Apsara television is owned by the sons of CPP secretary-general Say Chhum and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An. TVK, the national television station, sees itself as nothing more than an uncritical platform for the ruling party, while all other private TV stations closely toe the line in terms of pro-CPP material
Mr. Kanharith said that the CNRP was sensible to discard any ambitions to ever own a television station.
“We don’t grant licenses to political parties,” the minister said flatly.
The Press Law makes no reference to ownership of media by political parties, saying only that no “natural or fictitious” person can own more than two Khmer-language newspapers.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan reiterated Mr. Kanharith’s defense that political parties cannot own television stations.
Mr. Siphan also maintained that the CPP-led government had no right to interfere with what stations broadcast, despite the country’s entire TV broadcast culture being dominated by pro-CPP views, analysis and news. He said that his government wants “the media in the middle, not working in the interests of any party.”
“We have no mandate to tell anyone to work for the CPP. Check with these people [TV station owners]; they are all private. It’s a free market—we’re not communists,” Mr. Siphan said.
As for the unstinting pro-CPP stance of state-run television station TVK, Mr. Siphan said that the station belonged to the government of Mr. Hun Sen.
“TVK belongs to the government. You [must] understand that the government in Cambodia is different to the government in Washington.”
“Our goal is to bring the nation to positive thinking.”
Indeed, TVK has been exemplary in showing the ruling party only in a positive light.
In December, the 40-minute U.N. Development Program-sponsored “Equity Weekly” show—which had been broadcast uncensored on TVK alongside the stations closely-vetted news content—was suspended after the broadcast of a critical feature on the country’s economic land concession program and deforestation.
Cambodia Institute for Media Studies Director Moeun Chhean Nariddh said that the opposition should not discard its demands for a television license.
“In a democratic society, independent and neutral media outlets and TV stations are very important to promote democratic principles,” he said.
“I don’t think the government or any pro-government journalists working at TVK will have a neutral mind in coverage of the opposition and ruling party’s activities,” he said. “While a truly independent TV station does not exist, it is important to at least have an opposition TV station for balance.”
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said Friday that despite the success won by the CNRP through its door-to-door and Internet campaigning in July, direct control of television programming was still a vital part of reform for the opposition to ensure balance before the 2017 commune elections and 2018 national election.
“There has been a decline in [viewership of] the TV programs because they are so biased [toward the CPP]. Everyone thinks it’s just more of the same thing—the successes of the CPP—but they still watch it,” he said.
“The television is important because you can visualize the size of the event conducted by the CNRP…. At the last election, the opposition was not able to access the TV regarding CNRP events like the return of Sam Rainsy, the demonstrations and the campaigns.”
Mounh Sarath, one of the CNRP’s grassroots campaigners in Battambang province during the election campaign, said that existing TV stations would never give equal broadcast access to the opposition. Owning a TV station is the only way to break the CPP’s decadesold stranglehold on information.
“In the long-term, if we’re going to be the opposition party in the parliament, we are going to debate a lot, and we want that broadcasted so people can see who is defending them,” he added. “We can’t expect TVK…to broadcast it. We need an independent TV station.”
While the opposition’s social media strategy was hugely successful during the July election campaign, Mr. Sarath said, “only the educated people and those who have access to the Internet, and are brave enough, pass on information,” he said.
“In the villages, where there is suffering and violations, they still don’t have access to real information.”
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