[Editor’s note: VOA Khmer recently spoke with specialists in the field of natural resource management in developing countries and learned that Cambodia is not alone in struggling to use natural resources to benefit its citizens. The resource curse, where natural riches fail to help the poor, is a worldwide scourge, the global experts told VOA Khmer in numerous interviews. Below is Part 13 of the original VOA Khmer weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.]
Media outlets can play a critical role in natural resource management, but that has not been the case so far in Cambodia, where experts say exploitation of the country’s timber, minerals and other resources is often undertaken by political elites or businesses heavily involved in politics.
In order to build an informed society, according to Paul Collier, an Oxford University economist and author of “the Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It,” good media are needed, to inform citizens on issues of public interest.
Collier refers to these informed citizens as an important “critical mass,” which can help hold a government accountable on issues like natural resource management. However, he said, it is hard to build critical mass where good media are not in place.
“It doesn’t require everybody in the society to be well informed,” he said. “We need what’s called a critical mass, which is several thousand people who understand the issue and hold government to account.”
In the case of Cambodia, the local media have not been capable of informing people about the natural resource issue, said Chea Vannath, and independent analyst and former director of the Center for Social Development.
“Local media rarely broadcast about natural resource management,” one Phnom Penh resident, who gave only his given name, Sarom, said. “They broadcast mostly about improvement or development. But they have some short radio and TV spots to educate us not to kill wildlife and promote the government’s tree planting day, but other sensitive issues have never been broadcast.”
Puy Kea, Kyodo news correspondent and member of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, acknowledged that local media have limited coverage on the natural resource issue, while international media do better on sensitive issues.
Natural resources are not a priority for local media, he said. And there is a safety issue, as well.
“The real concern is when [journalists] go out to report on regions or institutions involving sensitive issues, such as corruption or irregularities,” he said. Meanwhile, he said, “in Cambodia nowadays, media have the tendency of leaning to the government and ruling party.”
Lao Monghay, a researcher for the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, said Cambodia has a number of media outlets; however, “people are scared.”
“We must have information to make judgments, and we must have freedom of expression too,” he said. “It’s also the responsibility of the media, newspapers and radio to report and publish or broadcast to the people.”
Eleanor Nichol, a campaigner for the watchdog Global Witness, which has had two of its reports on natural resources banned in Cambodia, said full freedom to cover the issue would bring an element of transparency to the process.
“If they allow the publication of information about who has access to what resources so that people on the ground and civil society in Cambodia are able to see what and who has control of their resources, [they can] begin to call the government to account on that,” Nichol said.