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Report Says Cambodia Media Subject to Political Pressures, Bias

With just two months to go before a general election in Cambodia, a report on the news media says that local journalists regularly face interference from the business and political elite. It says journalists work in a climate of fear in Cambodia and that there is impunity for those who threaten or kill them, allegations the government rejects. Rory Byrne has more from Phnom Penh.

The report found that over half of Cambodian journalists live in fear of physical or legal attack. Most say they are pressured to cover stories with a political bias.

"They have political bias because the conditions that they work push them to do that, you know, because their newspaper were supported by one political party, but mostly the ruling party," said Kek Galabru, the president of Licadho, the Cambodian rights group that produced the report.

All of Cambodia's television stations, and the bulk of its radio stations, are owned by people close to the ruling Cambodian People's Party. Galabru says the owners use those outlets to gain political advantage.

"Concerning the electronic media - the government controls (it) very tightly," Galabru noted. "They know that it makes a big impact on the public opinion. There is no single one - concerning television - that belongs to (an) independent voice."

With the election in July, campaign observers complain about what they call excessive pro-government content on the airwaves. Koul Panha is heads the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

"The election process in Cambodia [does] not reach to international standard [for a] free and fair election," Panha said. "The key measure of importance is the media - equal access to the media. But in the Cambodian context it's not like that - you can see the TV - 84 percent of political coverage is still in favor to the ruling party."

The minister of information, Khieu Kanharith, denies that the media favors the government.

"You know the people criticizing this, or assert these allegations, most of the time they are not really journalists," Kanharith said. "They don't understand the job or sometimes they didn't listen to the radio or watch the TV. And if everyone can read Khmer, or listen [to] Khmer, they know well that we have real freedom here."

The Licadho report also says there is little risk for those who threaten or kill journalists.

"We found at least nine that were killed for their work and none of the perpetrators was brought to justice so it sends a very strong message that there is impunity for the one that wants to attack the journalists," Galabru said.

The government disputes the number of journalists killed and denies that killers go unpunished.

"They say nine were killed - are you sure they got killed? Two or three - traffic accident," Kanharith said. "When you are a journalist killed it doesn't mean politically killed. When [Prime Minister] Hun Sen's brother was killed, until now also we couldn't find the murderer. Nobody says 'Why don't you go to find Hun Sen's brothers killer?'"

The minister says journalists can, and do, write and say what they want, including attacking Prime Minister Hun Sen.

"If you [are] scared you cannot accuse Hun Sen of being a Vietnamese puppet, as a thief, as the most corrupt family or anything. Read the newspaper, listen to the radio - you can see it. If they [are] really scared, how you can put it?" Kanharith asked.

Rights activists, however, say that critical voices find it hard to get heard in Cambodia. Koul Panha of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections says the authorities should do more to ensure fair access to the media.

"The Cambodian government, and the National Electoral Commission must make more effort to encourage the state media and the private media [to] open [themselves] to all political parties," said Panha. "If they can do that they will contribute a lot to the improved election environment and electoral process in Cambodia."

The Licadho report calls on the government to pass a law guaranteeing the electronic media's independence. It also calls for abolishing prison sentences for defamation, misinformation and incitement, and for media owners to increase salaries for journalists to make them less susceptible to bribery.