Radio Free Asia does an unsuccessful hatchet job

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 11 September 2014.]

Is Sam Rainsy the leader of the opposition in the Cambodian National Assembly, or is he the head of the Khmer-language section of Radio Free Asia? If the question strikes you as strange, then you haven’t been following RFA’s Khmer-language broadcasts, and the connection will be explained after a few other necessary points are dealt with.

On 29 August, RFA broadcast what is known in Western journalism as a “hatchet job” – that is, an article designed to discredit the person or organisation that is its subject.

Of course, there are some people or things that deserve to be discredited. But responsible journalists make sure that’s what they are dealing with before they produce a hatchet job. Equally important, they make sure to present facts that justify the attempt to discredit whoever or whatever it is.

RFA is not a home to responsible journalism. Its 29 August broadcast consisted of more than eight minutes (four pages in the transcript) of broad-brush abuse against the Cambodian Red Cross. It seldom even made a pretence of presenting anything that could be called a fact; it was almost entirely nothing but vicious name-calling (available in Khmer at http://www.rfa.org/khmer/news/politics/Cambodian-Red-Cross-under-political-interference-08292014103131.html).

The quality of RFA’s pretend journalism is revealed right from the start. The headline is “Cambodian Red Cross under political influence”. The phrase is in quotation marks, which means that somebody said it. Who? In reality, probably no one, unless the “journalist” was quoting himself. The phrase doesn’t appear in the broadcast; the quotation marks are there to fool the unwary into thinking that the RFA’s political hatchet job is what some knowledgeable person said.

According to the broadcast, while most Cambodians may think that the CRC is engaged in helping people suffering from natural disasters or armed conflict, its real role is to distribute funds to Cambodian People’s Party supporters in the provinces and to launder illegally gained money.

Are there any examples of where this happened? None are provided. Is there any evidence that this may have happened somewhere, if we could find out where that somewhere was? No, only the claim that “observers” say this happens. Who are these “observers”? How good is their eyesight? Good questions – but they aren’t answered by the RFA broadcast, except with a further fraud on the listener, and a possible abuse of the “observers” as well.

Who said what?

Only two identifiable people are quoted in the broadcast. They are Sok Touch, a political scientist who is the rector of Khemarak University and is regularly quoted by RFA whenever a story needs something critical of the government, and Kem Ley, described in the broadcast as a “researcher in social development” – which seems to downplay his full title, “Principal Investigator in the Social Development Research, Advance Research Consultant Team” of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, as he is described on the CCHR’s website.

While both are critical of aspects of the CRC, neither is quoted as saying anything that supports the serious charges broadcast by RFA. Kem Ley says there should be more transparency in CRC finances and that wives of politicians shouldn’t be involved in the Red Cross. Sok Touch is quoted as saying that the CRC may be “a little” influenced by politics; he offers no specifics of how this occurs.

So RFA creates an awkward situation for its two sources. Many listeners – perhaps most of them – hearing RFA’s charges and hearing only two names, will come away with the impression that the two named individuals are the source of the accusations.

That may be true, but it seems unlikely. If actual words supporting his charges had been available to the hatchet-wielder, presumably he would have used them. Since only unnamed “observers” are cited as evidence for his attacks, it seems that he has committed a fraud on Kem Ley and Sok Touch as well as on the listeners.

Made-up ‛facts’

Consisting of little but unsupported slanders, this RFA broadcast in itself is not really worthy of any attention. But in a larger picture, it may be worthwhile to consider what it tells us about RFA’s journalistic standards and its involvement in Cambodian politics.

For instance, the broadcast reveals that RFA is quite happy to invent “facts”. It begins by saying that the Red Cross is an organisation for “helping victims and poor people and helping to guard human health”. Knowing that this was untrue, RFA’s hatchet-wielder said that this is what “most people” think, but that was a deliberate evasion: nothing in the broadcast attempted to correct this alleged belief.

In reality, the International Committee of the Red Cross was set up specifically to assist victims of armed conflicts, not “victims” in general – the Red Cross is not patrolling highways, waiting to rush people injured in traffic accidents to the nearest hospital. Aside from its official missions in regard to armed conflicts, the ICRC and its national branches have also expanded into helping victims of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, who often need medical assistance. But that’s all. The ICRC is not the beginning of a world government.

Poor people may be more likely than rich people to suffer from war, but there is no ICRC mission to help poor people simply because they are poor. The Red Cross is not an organisation for poverty alleviation. That notion is simply made up by RFA’s Hatchet Man. The reason for this falsification? So that he can attack the Cambodian Red Cross for not aiding “poor people”, as he pretends it’s supposed to do!

More than that, Hatchet Man attacks the CRC for not aiding striking workers or people involved in land disputes – activities that have nothing at all to do with the Red Cross mission. I expect an RFA follow-up to condemn the CRC for not providing accurate weather forecasts.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the broadcast is its assertion that no Cambodian who assists the Red Cross to relieve distress does so out of human solidarity. The broadcast actually says that Cambodian business people who donate to the CRC are engaged in “illegal” businesses. It doesn’t mention any possible exceptions, so all business people who have given large enough donations to get a picture on the CRC website are criminals in the view of RFA.

And RFA doesn’t have a much more favourable view of ordinary Cambodians who donate. According to the broadcast, they are all just trying to curry favour with their superiors, who of course are part of the CRC money-laundering network.

This sort of nonsense doesn’t tell you much about Cambodia, but it tells you worlds about RFA. Clearly, RFA can’t conceive of the possibility of real human solidarity – of anyone, rich or poor, providing assistance to someone less fortunate unless they expect to get a greater return for it.

And why should that organisation think anything else? It was explicitly established to be a mouthpiece of the US government and is funded and directed in that spirit. Its broadcasts are designed, not to present reality, but to convince listeners of whatever the US government would like them to think: RFA employees are supposed to say whatever their paymasters want them to say. And eventually the organisation comes to think that the whole world operates on the same cynical basis that it does.

Sound familiar?

If some of the RFA nonsense sounds familiar, it may be because RFA isn’t the first to say it. Three months ago, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy got a bit of coverage in sympathetic media by writing to the president of the ICRC, complaining that the CRC was doing nothing about “the plight of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian victims of land confiscations and brutal evictions currently taking place daily in Cambodia”.

RFA isn’t quite silly enough to repeat Sam Rainsy’s exaggerated rhetoric, but it essentially repeats and adds to the latter’s complaint that the CRC isn’t doing things it was never meant to do.

I will not repeat here my criticism of Rainsy’s version of the nonsense (available at https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/sam-rainsy-seeks-another-international-patron/). The point is that these two organisations, RFA and the CNRP, seem agreed on attacking the Cambodian Red Cross in a similarly dishonest manner.

It makes you wonder if they have anything else in common.

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