On a recent afternoon at a glitzy conference room at the Sofitel, one of Phnom Penh’s high-end hotels, senior Cambodian officials, Chinese Embassy officials, and Cambodian and Chinese media representatives launched an initiative they hoped would influence local news coverage.
As confetti rained down and glasses of wine were raised in toast, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith hailed the newly established “Cambodia-China Journalist Association” (CCJA), which he said would have as its main goal the publication of positive stories about the political and economic relations between his country and China.
“There are many Chinese nationals and Chinese investors who have done well in Cambodia, but there are media reports of bad deeds by a tiny number of [Chinese] people,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we hide the bad deeds, but there are so many good deeds we can report.”
The association is co-chaired by local veteran journalist Soy Sopheap, who has close ties to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government, and by Liu Xiao Guang, a Chinese national who has worked in Chinese-language media in Cambodia.
CCJA’s Facebook page states it is “a non-profit organization working to promote and protect Cambodia-China journalists and let them keep their right of expression in Cambodia.”
‘Promoting positive news about our countries'
Zuo Wenxing, political counselor of the Chinese Embassy, told the attendants, “I hope that the association will play an important role in promoting positive news about our two countries and will join hands to fight against fake news that causes negative impact on the relations between our two countries.”
Ahead of last year’s general elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government banned the main opposition party and launched a crackdown on civil society and media that led to the closure or take-over most independent newspapers and radio stations.
His government has increasingly turned to China for diplomatic support and received a surge in Chinese loans and investments in real estate, infrastructure and natural resource exploitation in recent years.
A slew of critical reports from international news stories has covered Cambodia’s democratic backsliding and Beijing’s growing influence. China’s heavy presence has not gone unnoticed by the general public either, leading sometimes to critical comments on Cambodian social media.
In his remarks, Soy Sopheap echoed the government officials’ line that CCJA needed to counter such negative coverage of Chinese-Cambodia relations, which he blamed on other governments.
“Some countries are not happy and don’t support Chinese investments in Cambodia. And they also attack Chinese trade in Cambodia,” he told the gathering, in an apparent reference to the United States.
Washington has warned that Beijing is using massive foreign investments and loans under its Belt and Road Initiative in Asia and beyond to further China’s geopolitical ambitions.
When asked, Soy Sopheap told VOA that the new association was Chinese-funded but he declined to provide further details of its finances.
China’s ‘pursuit of a new world media order’
Media experts warned that initiatives like CCJA and Chinese investment in Cambodian media are replacing the last remnants of a free press with the Chinese model of information, which comprises state-approved news, entertainment and business, while critical coverage of politics is strictly censored.
Nop Vy, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said a lack of critical coverage of Cambodian foreign policy or Chinese investment projects will in the long term lead to a lack of transparency about these issues that will negatively affect Cambodian society.
“There should be not be any institution that prevents journalists from using their freedom in writing to cover sensitive news or critical news about China and China-Cambodia cooperation,” he said.
In a report released in March, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned that developments in the Cambodian media are part of “China’s pursuit of a new world media order,” which aims to prevent international criticism of its growing influence abroad.
“Beijing is lavishing money on modernizing its international TV broadcasting, investing in foreign media outlets, buying vast amounts of advertising in the international media, and inviting journalists from all over the world on all-expense-paid trips visits to China,” the report said.
“Countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar or Thailand are directly inspired by the Chinese model of information control. For instance, the cybersecurity law adopted in Vietnam is like a copycat of the Chinese law,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk told VOA Khmer in an email.
“They are actively trying to suppress any kinds of the independent journalism and replace it with state propaganda or at least state-controlled news” in Cambodia, added Cédric Alviani, RSF’s East Asia Bureau director.
Wiping out the free press
Cambodia’s media was “once among the freest in Asia”, said RSF, noting that it dropped from 71st in its Press Freedom Index in 2002 to 142 out of 180 countries in 2018.
From the 1993 peace accords until 2017, Cambodia was a nascent multiparty democracy and recovering from civil war with donor support from Western governments. It built up a lively civil society and a vibrant media sector.
Several large newspapers and TV stations owned by CPP-linked businessmen dominated the local-language media and television channels, but there were also two independent English- and Khmer-language daily newspapers and many independent radio stations.
The latter often relayed local-language reports by the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA).
The crackdown wiped out most of the independent media, shuttering or taking over the independent dailies and many radio stations. The RFA’s bureau was shut down and two of its reporters were arrested.
Dozens of former RFA employees have lost their jobs and some are concerned about their safety and press freedom in Cambodia.
Former RFA reporter Yang Chandara said, “I regret to see the decline of freedom of expression and press in Cambodia as China has expanded their influence on the media in Cambodia more and more.”
Installing the Chinese model of information
Around the time of the crackdown, Chinese investors stepped into the media sector, setting up their own outlets or teaming up with government-friendly news outlets.
A major Chinese investment is NICE Culture Investment Group, set up in 2017, which includes NICE TV channel. NICE TV is based in a flashy high-rise office inside Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, which reportedly holds a small share in the venture.
The key to NICE TV’s “bridge to the people” is an app the company has developed called Tutu Live, which allows viewers to beam themselves into the program, the television equivalent of talk-back radio.
Another Chinese media investment is Tnaot news, which means palm trees in Khmer. It has an online news site and mobile phone news app. Both NICE TV and Tnaot publish a Khmer-language mix of entertainment, business, and crime, law enforcement and social issues, stories while steering clear of critical coverage of politics.
“We don’t really focus on politics,” said Liao Kai, general manager of Tnaot news and a Chinese national who has lived in Cambodia for a decade.
The identity of the Chinese investors behind Tnaot and NICE TV - and whether they have links with the Chinese governments – remains unclear. Liao Kai insisted Tnaot is privately owned, but declined to provide details about its investor.
Government-friendly local media that were exempted from the crackdown, such as The Khmer Times and the CPP-aligned Fresh News, have provided largely positive coverage Chinese-Cambodian relations.
They mostly take their international news coverage from the Chinese state news agency Xinhua and translate it into Khmer.
Both outlets have also started a Chinese-language print version in recent months to cater to the tens of thousands of Chinese businessmen and tourists who have been coming to Cambodia in recent years.
The Khmer Times publisher T Mohan said his paper is nonetheless still critical of rising Chinese influence, pointing to a recent article on crimes committed by Chinese nationals and an editorial that suggests that Cambodia should avoid being seen as taking sides in the Chinese and American geopolitical rivalry.
His new, eight-page weekly paper in Mandarin covered mostly business news and avoided politics in China or Cambodia. “[T]he Chinese who have come to Cambodia… It doesn’t concern them. They are more concerned about making money,” T Mohan said.
This story was produced under the CLMV Integration Series of the Reporting ASEAN program, which is supported by the Lower Mekong Initiative and the US State Department. Reporting ASEAN is hosted by Probe Media Foundation Inc.