The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the US agency that oversees the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, has rejected claims by the Cambodian government that its broadcasters fabricate or manipulate news.
In a statement responding to a report by the Cambodian Council of Ministers this week making the accusations, BBG Chair Jeffrey Shell rejected what he called “unsubstantiated claims of bias” by the Cambodian government.
The Council of Ministers report followed violent crackdowns on protesters in recent weeks, including clashes Monday between government security forces and supporters of the independent broadcaster Beehive Radio.
Demonstrators had gathered in the capital to protest a government rejection of a Beehive application for increase FM signal and a television license. Beehive Radio carries VOA and RFA programming, among other international broadcasts, and is one of the few remaining independent broadcast media outlets in Cambodia.
“The report released by the Cambodian Council of Ministers on Jan. 28, 2014, with unsubstantiated claims of bias, is a troubling extension of a pattern of threats, attempts at intimidation, targeting of journalists and restrictions on independent media in Cambodia,” Shell said. “The most recent violent crackdown on demonstrators, including innocent bystanders such as reporters covering the events, is a distressing escalation of tensions in Cambodia in the fallout of the national elections in July.”
The Council of Ministers’ Quick Reaction Unit, which handles the media, said in its report that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was “supported by foreign broadcasting, especially the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.”
“Before and after the election, these two radio networks, which are directly supported by a foreign government, have broadcast biased information in violation of media professional ethics,” the report said. “They are the political instruments serving the interests of the opposition party and much of their news is fabricated and manipulated.”
Independent media analysts dismissed the Cambodian report Thursday, saying the Cambodian government still controls much of the nation’s broadcast media.
Karin Deutsch Karlekar, a senior researcher for the US-based Freedom House, told VOA Khmer the allegations of bias were not accurate.
“We’ve seen this allegation, that some of the international broadcasters, including VOA and RFA, are providing biased news coverage or unprofessional news coverage, but as far as we are aware and to our knowledge, it is not the case,” she said. “They are actually very important news outlets in an otherwise fairly closed news environment, and they are one of the main sources of independent news and information for Cambodians.”
The Cambodian government has had a campaign against the US outlets for several years, she said. “And I think this is driven mostly by the fact that they are providing key news and information, not because their reports are biased stories or the mouthpiece of the opposition in any way.”
Freedom House has in recent years noted a decline in press freedoms in Cambodia, which is still rated “not free” by the organization. “We’ve seen a lot of negative trends in the last few years,” Karlekar said.
Peter Maguire, author of “Facing Death in Cambodia,” said the government and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party have had to resort to crackdowns and accusations against its critics.
“I think VOA [Khmer] has a variety of voices, and it doesn’t speak in one voice,” he said. “I speak on VOA regularly, and while I have been critical of the CPP over the years, I am also no great fan of [opposition leader] Sam Rainsy. I don’t see him as same as many do.”
Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said any accusations of bias must be understood in a broader context, where press freedom in Cambodia is “minimal.”
“There are very tight restrictions, especially for television and radio in Cambodia,” he said. “There is now some freedom for some television stations but if it is from the opposition party or a group with opposing views from the government, they often face more restrictions.”
Ou Virak said he was not surprised by the Council of Ministers’ report, but he wondered at the timing—during ongoing crackdowns.
“I think the Cambodian government is trying to make sure that its citizens are scared once again, including those in the media and civil society organizations, to lead to self-censorship,” he said. “In such a situation, even without having to arrest anyone or shut down RFA or VOA, the government will still benefit from everyone’s fear.”