Post disguises its opinions as news

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 26 July and the Khmer Times on 28 July 2015.]

Unlike most English-language papers, the Phnom Penh Post does not have a regular editorial, giving the paper’s editor’s or owner’s views on issues of the day. Although the difference between “news” and “editorial” in most commercial newspapers has become largely fictional, the existence of a distinct “editorial” page or column at least pays lip service to the fiction and may occasionally remind a journalist that his/her opinions do not become facts simply by being printed.

But without a formal editorial, in its coverage of Cambodian news, the Post makes less and less distinction between news and the editor’s or owner’s opinions. A case in point is the 22 July cover story on the conviction and sentencing of 11 CNRP activists convicted for “insurrection” in connection with the 15 July 2014 violent demonstration at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.

In what is, unfortunately, an increasingly common journalistic practice, the writer attributes his own or his editor’s views to unnamed others. For instance, the court’s decision “came as a surprise to many”; “[o]bservers have long asserted” that the case was being used by the CPP to put pressure on the CNRP; “questionable evidence” was presented “according to rights groups”. The reader is never told who the “many” or “observers” are, or which “rights groups” the writer is referring to (Licadho is quoted later in the article, but not in regard to the evidence). The journalist doesn’t explain the reasons for the “surprise” of the unnamed many, nor comment on the accuracy or otherwise of the anonymous observers’ observations, nor tell us whether defence lawyers questioned the “questionable” evidence and, if so, whether the questions were answered satisfactorily.

In this way, the article pushes a particular political view without taking any responsibility for it. The reader is left with the impression that everything about the trial was suspicious if not outright illegitimate, but this view is not put into the mouth of any identifiable person, and no evidence to support it is presented. There is only one partial exception: at the end of the article, Licadho is quoted as saying the proceedings were “a show trial with a predetermined ending, apparently set up only to intimidate the CNRP”; but no evidence from Licadho is cited, and the remark really only summarises the article’s political line, without justifying it.

If these were the only flaws in the article, one might dismiss it as merely incompetent journalism. Unfortunately, there is considerably more that demonstrates bad faith by the Post.

It should be recalled that the 15 July 2014 events involved a brutal attack on security guards by demonstrators using flagpoles as weapons. At the time, the Post described the mayhem quite clearly. “Protesters savagely beat district security guards, at times bashing bloodied men lying incapacitated on the ground …” began one Post article, written on the same day as the events.

Further in, the same article reported: “… Post reporters witnessed numerous guards being isolated and beaten by the crowd. In a moment captured by a Post video journalist, a guard is seen lying unconscious on the ground, before having a rock smashed against his head. When an ambulance arrived, protesters blocked it from reaching the scene and turned it away.”

A 17 July 2014 Post article reported: “Post reporters at the scene witnessed numerous guards being isolated, stripped of their clothes and mercilessly attacked by the crowd.

Yesterday, a member of staff at Calmette Hospital told the Post that 22 people remained hospitalised following Tuesday’s violence.

Meas Phoeun, one of those beaten unconscious, was recovering from the attack …

[Phoeun’s son] added that his father was not a security guard but the chief of Phsar Thmey III’s Village 10.”

A year later, the Post could not totally do away with this information, but it did its best to hide it. While the new article’s first paragraph says that the protest “turned violent and left dozens injured”, it does not say who was injured and indicates nothing about the severity of the attacks. The identity of the victims was not mentioned at all on the Post’s first page; it was hidden away in the continuation inside, only in paragraphs 10 and 11 of a 20-paragraph article.

There, the limited information is presented in a way that tries to justify the violence. The article asserts that the injured guards were “notoriously violent Daun Penh district security guards” (“notorious” means “Everyone knows this is bad, so no evidence is necessary”).

The article goes on to claim that the guards were the victims of “CNRP supporters’ rage, pent up over months of violent crackdowns on opposition protests”. This description is, to put it mildly, exaggerated. During the 12 months prior, many, perhaps most, of the demonstrations in which there was some degree of violence between demonstrators and police or security guards were related to strikes or demands for raising the minimum wage – not to CNRP protests over the July 2013 election. (And there is no evidence that a village chief from sangkat Phsar Thmey III ever violently suppressed a CNRP demonstration.)

Furthermore, the rage of CNRP supporters over their inability to undo the result of the election had not been particularly “pent up”; it had been released through actions like trashing and looting shops which the demonstrators had decided were owned by “yuon”.

It should also be noted that the CNRP indicated its approval of the attack on the security guards. Together with a statement by Sam Rainsy saying that the guards had “provok[ed] a violent clash with demonstrators”, the CNRP distributed a video showing brave CNRP supporters releasing their pent-up rage by kicking bloodied and unconscious guards lying on the pavement. Many of the demonstrators in the forefront of the attack were wearing motorcycle helmets in evident anticipation of a fight. (See https://news.vice.com/article/video-emerges-of-protesters-attacking-police-in-cambodia-demonstrations.)

While the current Post article buried (in the 10th paragraph) the fact that 39 security guards had been injured in the attack, it simultaneously and much more prominently denied this. At the top of the same page, a photograph of one of the 11 defendants carried a caption saying, “… in July last year … a Daun Penh security member was beaten after a protest that turned violent”.

A” – that is, one – guard was beaten! And this single incident was not even really part of the demonstration, but took place “after” it. So how could the 11 defendants, who were at the demonstration, be guilty of anything?

That conclusion is what the whole article is intended to leave in the mind of the reader. The only real news is that the 11 were convicted and sentenced; the rest is unsupported opinion of the journalist and/or editor.

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