A de facto monopoly on Cambodia’s radio waves has allowed the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to retain political control of the country’s northeast, according to civil society groups and residents, who have called on the government to allow independent media broadcasts into remote areas in the region.
Rural residents of Kratie, Stung Treng, Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces are only able to access independent media—including Khmer-language radio broadcasts from foreign entities—via shortwave frequencies, giving government-aligned media groups that use stronger FM frequencies an advantage.
While the Ministry of Information officially delegates power to provincial information departments to decide how media groups can broadcast locally, provincial directors routinely refer to the ministry for permission whenever independent outlets request the right to rebroadcast their programs through local FM radio stations.
The relay requests are inevitably rejected on the grounds that each radio station should “produce its own broadcasting content.”
Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) executive director Pang Nguon Teang told RFA’s Khmer Service that by refusing to grant rebroadcast rights to independent media groups, the government is effectively denying the public access to information and balanced news coverage.
“People [in rural parts of the northeast provinces] rarely receive information from independent news outlets, so their perspective [on Cambodia’s current events] is not comprehensive,” he said.
“The government is also failing to provide them with the option of accessing independent news.”
Pang Nguon Teang’s concerns were echoed by ADHOC’s Stung Treng provincial coordinator Ho Sam Ol, who told RFA that denying the public access to a range of viewpoints is undemocratic, particularly amid Cambodia’s commune ballot held on June 4 and ahead of general elections set for 2018.
“We have seen that residents only receive news from one side, so they only hear about the good aspects [of the government] and tend to make uninformed decisions,” he said.
“In genuinely democratic [countries], citizens should be allowed access [to information from various sources] for their own consideration.”
While official results from last week’s commune elections won’t be announced until June 25, preliminary results showed the CPP won 22 provinces while the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won two major cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as in Kompong Cham province.
Residents from Stung Treng’s Thala Borivath district told RFA they don’t know why they lack access to independent media when they can easily tune in to government-aligned broadcasts through the province’s six FM radio stations.
Sy Nang said she would like to hear relays of independent media broadcasts through local FM radio stations so that she and other members of her community can “understand the realities of society.”
“It is crucial for us to understand what is going on in our society, such as … government activities, since we all are Khmers,” she said.
Another resident of Thala Borivath named Chan Borin said that he used to listen to domestic news broadcasts, but gave up because they only portrayed the government in a positive light.
Ministry of Information spokesperson Ouk Kimseng was not immediately available for comment regarding the government’s policy on independent media broadcasts.
Stung Treng provincial Information Department chief Ouk Theavy told RFA that local radio stations with licenses from the Ministry of Information must comply with terms and conditions as stipulated by the ministry according to the law.
He said his department can neither grant nor deny permission for local radio stations to relay broadcasting from independent media outlets, adding that the onus is on local station owners to comply with Ministry of Information standards.
“All stations must comply with the law … which clearly stipulate guidelines for operation,” he said.
‘Free flow of information’
San Chey, the Cambodia network fellow for the Philippines-based Affiliated Network for Social Accountability–EAP Foundation, told RFA he wants to see citizens from all walks of life have access to comprehensive, accurate and independent news so that they can make informed political decisions.
He said news coverage that lacks balance can lead local communities to make choices that can negatively affect their development.
“This can affect the progress of democracy, such as the implementation of government reform policies and, in particular, decentralization reforms,” he said.
San Chey called on Cambodia’s government to find ways to facilitate public access to comprehensive news coverage that addresses the needs of local communities.
“The free flow of information and ideas is a fundamental resource in democratic countries and is crucial for the genuine respect of human rights,” he said.
In 2013, the Ministry of Information overturned an order directing all FM stations to cease rebroadcasting Khmer-language radio programs by foreign broadcasters in the run-up to the country’s general elections, after Prime Minister Hun Sen's administration came under fire from the U.S., as well as foreign and local rights groups.
Khmer programs of at least three foreign broadcasters—U.S.-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), as well as Radio Australia—had been barred from being aired under the directive, which was seen as a major setback to media freedom in the country and aimed at stifling the voice of the opposition.
Reported by Chanthy Men for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.