How Radio Free Asia tries to dupe Cambodians

[Written in June 2016.]

When the commune elections are held next year, and the national elections in 2018, there will be an important participant whose name does not appear on the ballots. In fact, that participant is already hard at work campaigning for the Cambodian National Rescue Party.

I refer to Radio Free Asia.

RFA pretends to be an impartial, private broadcaster; it has even managed to get the word “private” included in its description in Wikipedia. But RFA is funded and run by various parts of the US government.

It was established in the 1950s by a CIA front called “Committee for Free Asia”. RFA claims that CIA control ended in 1971. Anyone who wants to believe that is free to do so (RFA didn’t exactly broadcast its CIA connections before 1971). But even if we take their word for it, it is still the case that RFA is funded and therefore controlled by the same people – the US government – who fund and run the CIA; exactly which channels the funds flow through doesn’t matter very much.

On its website, RFA claims: “Radio Free Asia’s mission is to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press.” Since RFA broadcasts in Khmer, it appears that, in the views of RFA’s masters, Cambodians don’t have access to a free press.

I have not done an exhaustive survey, but Khmer-language papers available on the streets of Phnom Penh include Koh Santepheap, Kampuchea Thmey, Nokor Thom, Nokor Wat and Rasmei Kampuchea. The three English-language newspapers, Cambodia Daily, Khmer Times and Phnom Penh Post, all publish Khmer-language supplements.

As in other countries, economic realities are causing an increasing proportion of Cambodian journalism to be published online. I found the following newspaper (not blog) titles: Areyathor News, Cambodia Express News, Cambodia Window, CamNews, Deumampil News, Everyday News, Khmer Angkor News, Khmerload, Khmer Sthapana News, Kqubed, Matemohachun News, Moneaksekar Khmer, Nokor Dragon, Nokorwat News, Siem Reap Post (English), Watphnom News. Some of these sites may also publish a print edition; at least Deumampil and Moneaksekar Khmer have done so in the past.

Cambodia also has a large number of radio stations. A Google search found a list of 228 stations – including RFA.

It thus appears that RFA’s professed fears of a lack of free media in Cambodia is not well founded.

The other problem with the RFA’s alleged mission is that its “news”, at least in the Khmer-language version, is extremely one-sided. It is not hard – in Cambodia or any other country – to find “bad” news: fighting, crime, corruption, poverty etc. But in RFA’s coverage of Cambodia, that is the only news there is.

In the Cambodia of RFA, nothing good happens – unless it is someone opposing or criticising the government. Here are the headlines of the main articles appearing on the RFA Khmer-language home page on 31 May:

“European Union concerned (បារម្ភ) about political situation in Cambodia”

“40 families employed making bricks in Siem Reap are strangled by debt (កំពុងវ័ណ្ឌកនឹងបំណុល)”

“Man who arranges rented vehicles accuses customs official in Poipet of using torture to extort money from him”

“People in Stung Treng are afraid of Lao citizens using poison to catch fish near the border”

“Government publishes a video threatening citizens with misfortune (វិនាសកម្ម) if they go too far (ហួសដែនកំណត់)”

“Petition of CNRP presented to the King”

“Villagers accuse chief of O Smach commune of selling water from a well given as aid by an NGO”

“People continue accusing authorities of Preah Sihanouk province of destroying road created by the late King”

“Interview on the views of the human rights sector of civil society on the government’s threatening video”

“Opposition party criticises CPP members of National Assembly”

“United Nations concerned about arrest of opposition party officials in Cambodia”

“Organisers of Black Monday campaign unsuccessful in attempted march to Prey Sar prison”

“People in Kompong Thom in land dispute unable to meet authorities because police seize their vehicle”

“Youth group of Srey Chamroeun protests against group supporting CNRP”

“Youth in Battambang province study administration of petroleum and gas resources”

Clicking on the “news” link leads to the same headlines, although presented in a different order.

Just from the wording of the headlines, nearly all the articles are obviously critical of the government at national and/or local level.

Those articles whose headlines don’t make it obvious are nevertheless written from the same political standpoint: It’s implied that the government is not doing anything about the problem of the Lao fishers; the Battambang youth studying oil and gas are part of an NGO praised by its US funders for having supported the CNRP in the 2013 national election, and who held a seminar to express their suspicion that the government wasn’t going to manage Cambodia’s oil resources properly.

The Khmer-language “analysis” for the same day was equally distorted:

“Khmers relying on foreigners for help: is it a matter of not learning from history?” (This argued that it was okay for the CNRP to seek foreign interference in Cambodian politics, because the Cambodians who overthrew the Khmer Rouge sought and received Vietnamese help. Think about the logical implications of that argument.)

“Courts have eyes” (attacking the arrests of people accused of seeking to falsify testimony in the defamation suit against Kem Sokha)

“Is the Black Monday campaign aiming to overthrow the government, or for something else?”

“If the court arrests Kem Sokha, how will that aid the party in power?”

“What’s behind the persecution of opposition party politicians?”

“The right to privacy was invaded by stealing a voice recording and spreading it publicly”

“Is the People’s Party evolving and changing its character after holding power for nearly 40 years?”

In its efforts to convince listeners that everything is rotten in the Kingdom of Cambodia, RFA relies more than a little on Human Rights Watch, and especially its director for Asia, Brad Adams. Like RFA, HRW and Adams have a history.

HRW was set up as part of the same Cold War propaganda strategy that produced RFA, but somewhat later. There was a bit of a thaw in the Cold War in 1975, with the signing of the Helsinki Declaration at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Worried that peace might break out, confirmed Cold Warriors in the United States set up an organisation called “Helsinki Watch” to attack the regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for any real or imagined violations of human rights (which were supposed to be supported by the Helsinki Declaration).

Partly because Helsinki Watch proved useful to US foreign policy and partly to remove the implication that the US felt human rights were in fine shape everywhere else in the world, the US soon set up similar “Watches” for the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Middle East (for example, Americas Watch would occasionally say “tut-tut” about the actions of US-supported dictators in South America). Eventually they were all amalgamated into Human Rights Watch (which still occasionally says “tut-tut” about dictators the US is friendly with).

Brad Adams may have passed through Cambodia once or twice in recent decades, but he has not been regularly present in Cambodia since his stint in 1997-2002, when he was notorious for his hostility to the CPP in general and Prime Minister Hun Sen in particular.

A year and a half ago, to mark the 30th anniversary of Hun Sen first becoming prime minister, HRW produced a large, scurrilous and mostly undocumented collection of accusations against Hun Sen (for my comments on it at the time, see When Senate President Chea Sim died a year ago, Brad Adams thought it an ideal opportunity to slander him. (By contrast, Sam Rainsy, not known as a great fan of the CPP, called Chea Sim a national hero.)

RFA put HRW’s January 2015 attack on Hun Sen, translated into Khmer, as a feature on its Khmer-language home page, and it is still there a year and a half later, indicating something about what RFA considers to be “news”.

Brad Adams also features in one of three “selected stories” recommended in a panel alongside all of the articles described above. This is an interview with Adams, from August 2015, in which he repeats his usual prejudices and distortions.

Although Adams never seems to modify his opinions according to what is happening here, RFA does sometimes update Adams’ attacks on the CPP and Hun Sen. For instance, on May 22, RFA ran an interview with Adams in which he explained why he thought Hun Sen had “created a political crisis”, even though it added nothing to Adams’ earlier expressed opinions.

I have focused on the role of HRW in RFA’s reporting mainly because it is easier to demonstrate HRW’s bad faith than that of RFA employees who do the dirty work when an appropriate HRW press release is not available. But it doesn’t matter that much who writes the material that RFA broadcasts in Khmer.

The people who run RFA have decided that listeners will get only bad news about what is happening in Cambodia. That decision of the managers means that even accurate articles about problems in Cambodian society will have a distorted impact, because they are cut off from any reports about the problems that are being solved and the gains being made. That is one of the ways, perhaps the main way, in which RFA and the people who pay for it try to fool Cambodians.