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Opposition Press Struggling in New Environment

Opposition journalists say threats, censorship and the financial crisis have all taken a heavy toll on their newspapers, even as they struggle to keep readers and present the views of both sides.

Two opposition editors have been jailed since 2008 for publishing reports critical of the government. A third was murdered in July 2008 ahead of national elections. Since then, readership has fallen by as much as a half at some opposition-aligned papers.

And where there were once hundreds of smaller papers supporting various political parties and viewpoints, there are now less than 30.

Dam Sith, editor in chief of Moneaksekar Khmer, who was jailed in 2008 for publishing remarks critical of a senior minister, said he no longer “dares” to attack the government for fear of arrest.

“Before, when we did a story, we did not need to interview or seek any reaction from the other side,” he told VOA Khmer. “But now we find other reaction to round out [the story], so the readers are confused [and think] that what we write is weak. That has made our market fall. That’s now a problem.”

He has only been able to sell about half of the 4,000 papers he prints for the past four or five months, Dam Sith said.

“I feel concerned that one day we can’t support it and are facing hardship to proceed with publication,” he said.

Hang Chakra, editor in chief of Khmer Machas Srok, who was released in April after nearly a year in jail on defamation charges, said he has cut his paper’s publication from six to three days a week. He blamed the economic crisis for reducing reader spending.

“If there is no more money than this, we will keep it three days per week,” he said. “We will do that to the end. Whenever it collapses, that’s the time to finish.”

Bun Tha, editor in chief of the Khmer Amata paper, which has moved away from its support of royalist parties, said he is only selling about half of his 1,000 printed copies.

The opposition newspapers are now operating in a country labeled “not free” in 2009 by the international media monitor Freedom House, due in part to the July 2008 shooting of Khim Sambor, a journalist for Dam Sith’s Moneaksekar Khmer. Twelve journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1994.

The current environment includes journalist lawsuits under criminal defamation and disinformation—rather than the press law—creating self-censorship on sensitive issues like corruption, border disputes and land-grabbing, said Moeun Chhean Narridh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.

His group continues to push for constitutional freedoms and “the covenants and conventions related to human rights,” he said. “So we want full freedom of expression and press freedom.”

On the other hand, he said, journalists must ensure they are professional and check with editors and even lawyers to prevent defaming articles.

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, acknowledged a decline in the opposition press, blaming it in part on the persecution of journalists and their jailing under the new criminal law.

Meanwhile, the dissemination of news must be part of the country’s development, said Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.

“But on the contrary, we have seen that there is a small group of newspapers that keeps shrinking,” he said. “When the opposition and voice of the government’s opponents disappears and there is no criticism, I believe that a government will become a dictatorship.”

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, rejected claims that intimidation was hurting the opposition press. Instead, the papers have not been able to adapt to current economic pressures, he said. Journalists facing defamation charges are those who fail to do research, he said.

“Questioning whether there is a disappearing voice required by a democratic society—I understand that there is not too much worry,” he said. “Because the life of our nation will have additions to replace it, especially as the government prepares spokesmen and information researchers to receive any criticism [so that] the information corrects itself.”