PHNOM PENH - Minutes before a recent show, “VOD Roundtable” host Lim Thida readied notes and warmed up the day’s guests. Control room staffers prepped to go live with all the trappings of the kind of on-air radio broadcast that, until a few years ago, was typical for the longtime Voice of Democracy program.
But this was 2019, and instead of radio, “VOD Roundtable” was being reborn online. Producer Srey Sopheak ran a final check with the engineers, then gave Lim a go-ahead via walkie-talkie.
“Hi, this is me, Thida, welcoming all TV viewers who are watching this live ‘VOD Roundtable’ show, which is broadcast via the Facebook page of vodkhmer.news. Today, we will look at measures to eliminate corruption in Cambodia’s judicial system.”
Over the next hour, the panelists included a top government spokesperson, a prominent human rights activist, and a member of an advisory body representing a consortium minority parties – a mix underscoring the balance and independence that have been VOD’s hallmark.
A glimmer of hope in an otherwise bruising environment for independent media in Cambodia, VOD is one of multiple outlets whose operations were threatened in the run-up to the 2018 elections, as the incumbent government of Prime Minister Hun Sen sought to smother dissent.
Some news outlets were hit with exorbitant tax bills, while others, including five VOD radio affiliates, saw their broadcast licenses revoked, costing them millions of listeners.
This, said Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific chief for Reporters Without Borders, was part of a broader campaign that has “led to the quasi-total destruction of independent media” in Cambodia.
Among the casualties: closure of the venerable Cambodia Daily and dozens of radio stations; silencing of foreign media outlets, including Radio Free Asia (a sister broadcaster to Voice of America); and sale of the Phnom Penh Post to a Malaysian investor whose public relations firm worked for Hun Sen.
“Media like Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia or VOD helped Cambodians to access non-government-controlled information,” Bastard said. “Most Cambodian citizens are deprived of [access] now, and have to cope with official propaganda.”
VOD aims to change that. Launched in 2003 by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), a Phnom Penh non-governmental organization, VOD aimed to air “educational, informative and unbiased public service radio in Cambodia.”
Human rights and democracy-themed programming became a staple as VOD worked to live up to the “People’s Radio” logo on its control room walls. The line-up includes “VOD Roundtable,” a call-in show where listeners engage with guest panelists on a range of news-related topics.
Prior to Hun Sen’s 2017 crackdown, VOD boasted an extensive network of provincial radio stations across several provinces and a stable of pioneering citizen journalists. Audience reach was deep – an estimated 7 million of Cambodia’s 9 million registered voters.
In part, VOD may have survived the crackdown because its parent entity, CCIM, is registered with the Cambodian government and is supported by a smorgasbord of international foundations and organizations. Among its founders are the U.S.-based Open Society Foundations, Bread for the World, Sweden’s Diakonia, and Denmark’s DanChurchAid.
In suspending five FM radio frequencies across rural provinces, the government stripped VOD of its audience without shuttering VOD itself. Left with a staff of radio producers but no airwaves, VOD was forced to rethink its strategy, CCIM Media Director Nop Vy said.
“We had to immediately organize a series of consecutive trainings in early 2018, and from that time on we quickly evolved into digital,” said Nop, adding that VOD focused on video broadcast production while repurposing traditional radio shows for online dissemination.
For the flagship “VOD Roundtable,” the decision was to relaunch as a live-video broadcast on Facebook and YouTube in 2018.
Operating out of a studio tucked away in Phnom Penh's trendy Boeung Keng Kang neighborhood, the show continues to tackle topics considered politically taboo.
Lim — one of a trio of hosts for the show — looked tired but pleased after wrapping up a recent one-hour panel discussion on judicial corruption, a fraught topic in a country where even high-level officials tasked with rooting out malfeasance in the courts are suspected of complicity.
“We are proud when we’re able to broadcast news and people’s concerns that officials higher up have to find a solution for,” said Lim, savoring a small journalistic triumph of sorts.
Only moments earlier, one of Lim's guest panelists, Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin, took the unusual step of acknowledging that Hun Sen's government has a less-than-perfect record when it comes to disciplining its own officials.
“We have taken measures and solved many cases,” Chin said during the broadcast, explaining that nearly 20 judges and prosecutors alone received disciplinary action in 2018. “But we acknowledge that problems remain.”
It was then that another of the show's panelists, Pich Sros, called Chin out. Sros is the head of a minority party and member of the Supreme Consultative Council — a government-sanctioned advisory body consisting of minority parties that contested but failed to win any seats in the 2018 elections. Sros said the government's disciplinary measures were insufficiently transparent.
Lim then took a few callers and concluded the audience participation in the show by reciting comments from a Facebook viewer.
“Corruption in the legal system is laughable," she said, quoting the viewer. "Even the legal system that is responsible for enforcing the [anti-]corruption law [is itself corrupt], so we can only imagine how deeply corrupt other public administrative bodies are.”
So far, Lim's roundtable discussion programs haven't prompted run-ins with government officials, something she attributes to the show’s consistently balanced curation of views.
Even Chin, who appeared to discuss judicial corruption alongside Yi Soksan, a senior investigator with the human rights group Adhoc credited “VOD Roundtable” with helping to get his government message out.
“We had a good discussion,” Chin told VOA. “Like our guest [today] from civil society, we all work for the same social development goals, but the ways we work are different and our challenges are different. So it is good to sit down for a discussion, exchange concerns, and come to a common solution.”
If “VOD Roundtable” represents a flicker of hope in Cambodia’s otherwise darkened media landscape, it has yet to prove that its online format can regain the millions of radio listeners lost in the crackdown.
“As radio, we had a lot of fans and we could receive up to five or six callers during the one hour [show],” Lim said. “But after our transition, there are fewer callers.”
Facebook recently surpassed television and radio as a primary news source for many Cambodians, but digital media remains a new beast. Advertising and hidden algorithms decide what gets visibility as controversies about censorship and disinformation swirl.
Bastard, of Reporters Without Borders, is a skeptic about the potential for digital media to grow.
“Things could have been much worse without the internet, of course, but radios were a great way to inform communities in remote areas and to reach people who are not literate enough to read written articles,” he told VOA.
“Online information cannot replace this,” he said, “especially given the biases indicated by the platforms themselves.”
Government officials routinely deny that there are any efforts to suppress media. Phos Sovann, director-general of the Ministry of Information’s department of information and broadcasting, told VOA that radio license revocations during the 2017 crackdown were justifiable “legal enforcement measures and nothing else."
Nop Vy, the media director of VOD's parent, said he’s hopeful that ongoing digital innovation, including plans for an English website, can generate an audience that compensates for the millions of listeners lost in the crackdown.
And if “VOD Roundtable” continues to foster public debate by involving citizens and the government alike, he said, it can survive by having an impact.
"We will have to take it step by step,” he said.
This story originated in VOA's Khmer Service.