Press freedom: Not being able to see the wood from the trees?

Eileen McCormick / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
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“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” – Edward Bernays, ‘The Manipulation of the American Mind’.

Cambodia is at the forefront of international news due to the recent change in ownership of one of its oldest English newspaper, Phnom Penh Post. This has left debate far and wide if freedom of the press is ‘dead’ in Cambodia.

This lively debate has caused me to think and analyse about the concept of a free press globally and if true freedom of the press exists anywhere in modern society?

Freedom of the press is defined as the right to publish newspapers, magazines, and other printed matter without governmental restriction and subject only to the laws of libel, obscenity, sedition, etc.

On December 2, 1766, the Swedish parliament passed legislation supporting the freedom of the press and freedom of information. This law eliminated the Swedish government’s role as a censor of printed material, and it allowed for the official activities of the government to be made public. This act has become the cornerstone of democracies throughout the world.

Fast forward this to over two and a half centuries later and it has become clear that in the event when governments are not directly involved in limiting free press they have monetary and financial stakes in the private sectors controlling much of the media globally.

In the United States, 90 percent of what the public watches, listens to and reads is owned by six companies. However, 30 years ago 90 percent of media was held by 50 different companies. This is a similar pattern I have found in Australia, having the least diversity internationally when it comes to media ownership.

Harvard published a study about media ownership in 97 countries around the world. They found that almost universally the largest media firms are owned by the government or by private families. Family-controlled newspapers account for 57 percent of the total and family- controlled television stations for 34 percent of the total. State ownership is also vast. On average, the state controls approximately 29 percent of newspapers and 60 percent of television stations. The state owns a huge share – 72 percent – of the top radio stations.

Cambodia’s wealthy elite is increasingly buying media outlets, according to a joint Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) and to Reporters without Borders and the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. Among 27 owners surveyed in the project, nine are business and political tycoons and 10 are politically affiliated.

The wealthy who own media outlets have many other financial interests, and there are often obvious – and subtle – conflicts of interests. While this is by no means helping Cambodia establish a strong foundation for media, it is also following global patterns with media ownership that creates content to attract advertising and push individual agendas.

For obvious reasons when a select few wealthy people are in control of where and how we get our information, it will inevitably have an impact on media integrity.

Media integrity refers to the ability of a media outlet to serve public interest and the democratic process, making it resilient to institutional corruption within the media system, economy of influence, conflicting dependence and political clienteles.

When companies dominating a media market have the power to suppress stories that do not serve their interests – the public suffers, since they are not adequately informed of some crucial issues that may affect them.

It was once believed that private and independent media companies could supply alternative views to the public that the government owned media would not. However globally what has transpired instead is a symbiotic relationship between private and government endeavours – closely or loosely connected depending how you view it.

If you look at big banks or corporations, they tend to have donated or invested in political campaign funds, lobbying etc. that require cronyism with those working in government. In return those holding government positions will see the benefit in investing or even becoming board members of some of these private corporations.

Even a group such as the United Nations is not above reproach when it comes to press freedom. In a story published originally in the New York Times the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, “postponed” a panel discussion on May 3 (World Press Freedom Day) after it asked a participant to alter a video presentation that had singled out countries with heavy restrictions on the news media.

To work globally the UN must be careful not to upset the political balance. However, I have to ask myself if an advocate of freedom of the press has to censor itself how could it then point its finger at a developing country like Cambodia?

While there is room for Cambodia to improve and create better media policy I would argue that it is also needed globally. In my home country of America, journalists are also increasingly being stopped and searched at US borders and they’ve recently been arrested for covering protests at the inauguration of Donald Trump and the Dakota access pipeline at Standing Rock.

Looking further into Standing Rock now, most the US mainstream media has either stopped or been forced to stop covering the plight of these Native American communities. What activists feared did indeed come true. The oil pipes leaked and no one in power seemed to care. In this instance, it was quite clear that profits outweighed media integrity.

So what about self-produced content on social media platforms? Even then, there is a limitation to content which is allowed to be published. Read carefully the agreements to YouTube etc. because it clearly states what you post or publish must be “ADVERTISING FRIENDLY” to generate web traffic.

So is freedom of the press dead in Cambodia? If so, it’s no more dead then it is globally. While the bleeding hearts might lament about the transition of Phnom Penh Post, bear in mind that no one is talking about the Khmer language media. Khmer media outlets like Sabay News have in recent years made a name for themselves and are also working on producing news that are unbiased. So are we failing to see the wood from the trees in the forest?

Eileen McCormick is a journalist in Good Times2, a weekend publication in Khmer Times Group.

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