PHNOM PENH — They don’t have to worry as much as before about getting shot on the street or having grenades thrown at their houses. But Cambodia’s journalists still labor under a government that doesn’t like dissent. And the country still has to put up with journalists who create problems for themselves by being unprofessional and corrupt.

Since 1991-93, when U.N. peacekeepers freed Cambodia’s press from communist-style controls, almost all newspapers have been financed by members of the parties of arch rivals Hun Sen, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy. For many journalists, that meant their job was to harangue political rivals. Some paid for it; up to 1997, half a dozen journalists were killed in circumstances that suggested the involvement of the authorities. But through a coup in 1997 and victory in the July 1998 election, Prime Minister Hun Sen has finally quieted down Ranariddh, now the National Assembly president. And Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader, has toned down his antigovernment criticism a bit.

With politics less volatile, journalists are breathing a little easier, although many still exercise considerable self-censorship. “Now there is only suppression by suspending and closing down newspapers. Before, they killed you,” said Tom Somalay, a reporter for the pro-Sam Rainsy newspaper Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience).

Of course, things can change quickly in a country without the rule of law. “If Hun Sen feels secure and there is no threat to his position or political career, he doesn’t care if the papers criticize him,” said a Cambodian analyst who asked not to be identified. “But if he feels there is a threat, he can react very quickly.”

Pro-Rainsy newspapers have the most trouble because they commonly condemn Hun Sen. For safety reasons, opposition journalists like Tom Somalay do not use their real names on their stories.

The government denies access to opposition journalists because they don’t like the rumors and one-sided stories they print. But the journalists say that only forces them to print more. Pretty soon, the government’s hand is forced. “I try to explain to journalists that defamation is not freedom of expression,” says Khieu Kanharith, the secretary of state for information, adding that the message does not appear to be getting through.

In February, the government threatened to close Moneaksekar Khmer and another pro-Rainsy newspaper on charges of inciting violence against ethnic Vietnamese and insulting Sihanouk and Hun Sen. The newspapers got a reprieve after they published apologies. In April, the government suspended the Cambodia News Bulletin (Pritbat Pordamean Kampuchea) for a month for allegedly defaming government officials. The newspaper, a weekly published in English and Khmer, had reported alleged corruption by senior officials. In July, the newspaper was suspended again, for an article that said a prince was not Sihanouk’s own son.

The Bulletin’s editor called the suspensions violations of press freedom. But the Bulletin also violated principles: Without permission, it took the article about Sihanouk from the Web site of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. (Sihanouk says he plans legal action against the Post, which has apologized for the mistake.) Indeed, the Khmer-language newspapers routinely take stories from the international wire agencies off the Internet to create their “world news” sections. They also reprint without permission stories and photographs from Cambodia’s two strongest independent newspapers, the English-language Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily. They do this with sensitive stories in particular, because they think that’s safer than doing their own versions.

Many Cambodian journalists also accept bribes from officials, businessmen and others in exchange for writing favorable stories about them, or demand bribes for withholding unfavorable stories. One Cambodian analyst said that one leading newspaper switched from government critic to supporter a few years ago after bigwigs paid off the editor by building him a big villa.

While some newspapers appear more professional than before — with more accurate and balanced stories — the journalists don’t seem to be any less venal. The problem is the poor pay. Rasmei Kampuchea pays better than any other Khmer-language newspaper. But its starting reporters get only about $200 a month, according to Pen Samitthy.

Journalists can be trained to report and write better stories, but it’s unlikely that corruption will decrease unless salaries rise. And that won’t happen unless political stability lasts long enough so that the economy grows, more foreign investors arrive, the population becomes more literate and, as a result of all these trends, enough of an advertising and circulation base develops for the newspapers to become independent commercial enterprises.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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