In journalism, reporting the news should be done objectively, and issues treated as either black or white. News should not affect or be affected by issues of national identity. The author of the following short article sets these beliefs in the context of Cambodia.
Many people in Cambodia believe that journalists should not hold opinions. They are supposed to find out facts and follow up hunches. In preparing for this article I had a hunch that I should talk to people who know the issues well. To start with, I decided to talk with someone familiar with Cambodian national identity. So I talked to Cambodia's Minister of Culture, Nouth Nareng.
He said that national identity in Cambodia is a complex issue. I was hoping for a simple answer, but work is never so easy. 'National identity is the transmission of each generation's legacy to the next,' he said. So far, so good. But what does this mean in Cambodia where that legacy is so mixed up as a result of recent history. I asked him to be more concrete.
The Minister said that symbols might be a good place to start. He suggested that the snake best represents Cambodia. It can live in water or on land, and it can change itself according to its surroundings and its needs. The crocodile and the dragon are also powerful symbols, and the same applies to them.
He told me that Cambodian national identity results from a number of things: history, daily life, the land, a moral code, an artistic code and the climate. It is how we eat rice, how we work the fields (cultivating sugar cane for example). It is how we domesticate animals and use our boats. It is the way we wear clothes, such as the 'Krama' (a chequered scarf).
National identity can be found in traditional clothes, which tend to be shiny and sleek. Our songs also help define us. They are fluid and shrill, and contain many solitary voices. There is also the distinct movement of our dances, which focus attention on our hands and feet, which often move in spiral forms (like the snake).
The sum of our history combines with present-day life and our cultural heritage to form national identity. Every regime leaves a mark on it. 'They have all left glorious or shameful monuments,' the Minister said.
He also told me that the moral identity of Cambodia 'has been in ruins for 20 years. We are in the process of putting it back together piece by piece. It isn't easy,' he said. In the end, the Minister of Culture told me, our national identity is the 'creation of a common voice. It is the outer skin that the people of the country create. It is the merger of tradition with modern life.'
I asked what this 'outer skin' of national identity is for. The Minister replied that a firm sense of national identity has two important functions. It can help people to resist the confrontations of the new world as they maintain traditional views of themselves and their country. Or, it can help them to integrate the new world into their daily lives in a healthy way. In short, he explained, modern consumerism must be balanced by pagoda life, teachers, and the wisdom of elders.
I asked about the challenges that national identity faces from the media and modern communications. He pointed out that national identity has recently stood up to a whole lot of difficulties. There was the decade of strife and destruction in the 1970s, and then the involvement of Vietnam, and its cultural legacy in the 1980s. While few of them had anything to do with the media then, the situation is now different.
The media changed with the arrival of massive United Nations involvement in 1991. UNTAC (the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia)1 brought changes to the Cambodian media and the way we saw ourselves. Suddenly there was a huge external force in the country. It had an enormous effect on our sense of national identity. UNTAC brought in its own independent radio and television. All the other stations were controlled by different political factions. UNTAC offered what was called objective broadcasting, without any partisan political bias, although it was obviously coloured by the people who broadcast it.
The Minister of Culture said that UNTAC was 'very well done,' but he noted that it introduced lifestyles that Cambodia was not necessarily ready for.
Impact of foreign mass media
Media assault on national identity continued after the 1993 elections. Foreign media became more common. Many of the new media no longer had the goal of creating a space for political debate - although some did. Much of it was dedicated to making money or bringing consumer values to Cambodia.
Today we have Thailand's ABC which broadcasts Thai values into Cambodia. Other channels are broadcasting values that are also affecting the way Cambodians view themselves and each other. For example, violent television shows are common. They are broadcast in Chinese and Thai. The Minister of Culture said, 'If ever there was a country that has seen enough violence of its own, it is Cambodia. We need something different - programmes that will pacify. Cambodia is not ready for such violent content as it tries to promote social rehabilitation.'
While the provinces have had some success in resisting this attack on Cambodia's cultural identity, the capital is less successful. In the cities, it is not unusual to see a monk on a motor scooter, or wearing an American baseball hat, smoking cigarettes and carrying a suitcase.
Maybe this is because most of the media is centred in Phnom Penh. While Cambodia's seven radio and four television stations reach most of the country, the print media are based in Phnom Penh. The media are centred in the capital because communications with many provinces are limited.
In the opinion of the Minister of Culture, the influence of Thailand is increasing, which might be due, in part, to the media. Close cultural and historic links between Thailand and Cambodia make it easier for the media to pass on cultural change to a new generation of Cambodians.
Young people now wear different clothes, use beauty products, especially makeup, which was previously rare. Consumer culture is replacing parts of traditional culture. This is especially poignant in a country where currency and personal ownership were prohibited only 17 years ago. Now we also have pornographic films in a country that previously had none.
In addition, the traditional clothing often seen in the 1960s is generally reserved for ceremonies now. When clothes changed, an important part of national identity was lost, according to the Minister.
Even the language may come under attack as English - the language of ASEAN - becomes more common. Chinese is also becoming prevalent, while French - the former colonial language - is becoming less important. And food has changed. Cambodians use many spices now, especially from Thailand, that were never used before.
Freedom of expression
With all this in mind I decided to speak with a media expert. The obvious person to consult was Ieng Mouly, the Minister of Information. He would be in a position to highlight some of the struggles going on within the media, and between the media and the government. They largely concern press freedom and, ultimately, national identity.
The first thing the Minister said was that the press may not be as powerful as people believe, noting that only about 100,000 people read newspapers on a regular basis in a country of 10 million.
He said that media access is going to be a key issue in coming years, especially because there is no UNTAC to guarantee that Cambodia's multitude of political parties have access to the air waves. He said that a broadcasting law and an election law must be passed to give political parties television access, like during the UNTAC period. We will see if that happens.
The question of whether political parties outside the fragile governing coalition will be able to set up their own radio stations is one being asked in governing circles. The Minister promised that access will be 'like during UNTAC.' He said that every party will have access to the media, but many people do not think that the choice is entirely his. Many ask if the Ministry of Information is under pressure from parts of the coalition which might prevent this from happening.
'We have to recognize that people have worked [at the Ministry of Information] for a long time. I don't know if they are all members of the Cambodian People's Party, but some of them have worked here since 1979 [when the CPP came to power]. Sometimes they are more receptive to [their old bosses] than to us, who come from the outside. It is not a policy, but it is a practice,' he said.
Some electoral experts say that a neutral radio, television and press can help make the coming elections fairer by allowing a variety of viewpoints and possible solutions to be discussed. A war of ideas is better than a war of weapons, they say. Skirmishes between members of the two government coalitions in the city of Battambang in November 1996 only underscore the importance of dialogue over bullets.
The Information Minister also said, 'Cambodia must enjoy freedom of the press, opinion and association. But I am concerned that we have only just returned from war, from a time of social disintegration. We need to rebuild, to unite our forces to live better. What we are concerned about is how to strengthen national unity. We want every member of society, including journalists, to understand that. They can use their rights to contribute to the effort of rebuilding the country. So there are degrees. We can talk about everything because we have the right and the freedom to do so. But if you look at the interests of the people, the interests of the nation, we have to set priorities,' he said.
'If we compare our country to Western countries, we must have the same rights as Western countries like France, the United States and Australia. But the problem is that we are in the process of rebuilding the institutions that support all those rights. There, they have had those institutions for several hundreds of years. But I am optimistic. I think that time will help our people to understand that before we reach the final objective, we have first to restrain ourselves. Everyone, including the government, the media and the elderly people must be involved.'
He also said that Cambodia must do everything it can to remain united. 'If we fall into the trap that Cambodians have to fight each other, I think the people will suffer. We have to do everything not to go back to the past and then try to move forward little by little.'
He noted that journalistic standards, if followed, would address many of the concerns about the positive and negative influences that the media can have. He suggested that a lack of training is what can be most destructive in the Cambodian situation. 'Journalistic professionalism is very important: looking at two or more sides of a story. We have to exclude rumour and innuendo, and avoid incitement to violence. We have to be tolerant,' he said.
'Cambodian society must strengthen institutions so that people can gradually use their rights and freedoms. The press has to use self-censorship. If you fulfil your responsibility, we will achieve a better society. If journalists offer balanced coverage of every story, there will be no problem. As Buddhists, we must be responsible.'
It seems to me, however, that on the one hand, the Minister is saying that there should be freedom of the press, but on the other that Cambodia is not necessarily ready for it. In short, Cambodia is not socially or culturally ready for it. This will be the subject f an ongoing debate.
This article is based on a speech given at the consultation on 'Communication and Preservation of National Identities' by Chea Sotheacheath, a reporter with The Cambodia Daily. It took place 28-30 November 1996 in Ho Chi Minh City, Viêt Nam.
1 Following five years of negotiations between the warring factions in Cambodia and its neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia, the United Nations sent over 20,000 peace-keepers to Cambodia in an operation known as UNTAC. This UN mission was not entirely successful because one of the four Cambodian political factions, Democratic Kampuchea (Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge) withdrew from the peace process and refused to participate in the UN-sponsored elections.
Despite this, in May 1993 the present Cambodian Government was elected. It is a coalition of the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), the State of Cambodia (SOC), the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) and the recently founded Moulinaka Party. The Kingdom of Cambodia, with a constitutional monarchy, was then re-established in September 1993.