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China’s Efforts to Shape the Information Environment in Cambodia

Ryan LoomisHeidi Holz
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This report is part of a series that assesses Beijing’s efforts to influence the media environment in the neighboring Mekong countries. It focuses on China’s efforts to reach and shape the views of audiences in Cambodia.

Key findings

Cambodia’s media environment underwent an abrupt transformation in 2017 and 2018. To maintain political control in the lead up to the 2018 Cambodian general elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen led a crackdown on the media. The crackdown helped to assure the Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP’s) victory in the 2018 election and left a government-controlled information environment that is intolerant of dissenting voices. This transformation in Cambodia’s media environment led to three important developments:

          1. Public trust in traditional media decreased.

          2. Independent media outlets were forced to go digital to survive.

          3. China was given an opportunity to displace traditional foreign media actors, such as Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), and significantly increase its presence in the Cambodian information environment.

China has sought to fill the vacuum in Cambodia’s information environment in the following ways:

  • Producing content tailored to appeal to Cambodian audiences. China Radio International (CRI) regularly produces Khmer-language reporting on local events likely to be of interest to general audiences in Cambodia. This is unique to CRI’s Khmer service, and is not the case in the other Mekong countries, where People’s Republic of China (PRC) state-run media reporting tends to be overwhelmingly Sino-centric.
  • Providing content to Cambodian media outlets. Multiple content-sharing agreements with key Cambodian media outlets result in broad republication of content from several PRC media outlets, including Xinhua, Global Times, People’s Daily, and CCTV/CGTN. CRI also formed a partnership with Cambodia’s state-run radio station, RNK, to establish CambodiaChina Friendship Radio (CCFR).
  • Investing in Cambodian media outlets. PRC-based entities have invested in local mobile and multimedia platforms such as TNAOT News and ASEAN TOP NEWS, both of which frequently republish content produced by PRC media outlets. Of note, all of these outlets are widely seen as pro-government. In addition, a Chinese investment group engaged in a joint venture with Cambodia's Interior Ministry to establish NICE TV.
  • Establishing itself as a key source of support in developing local information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure. Huawei is developing the Kingdom’s 5G while China Unicom, WeChat, Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corp. (ZTE), and South East Asia Telecom (SEATEL) are also involved with ICT development in Cambodia.

China uses its presence in Cambodia’s information environment to promote narratives that further its strategic interests. Key PRC narratives include the following:

  • China supports the Hun Sen government. When many countries condemned Hun Sen’s media crackdown and arrest of his political rival, Beijing expressed support for Cambodia’s prime minister.
  • Cambodia benefits greatly from its partnership with China. Beijing portrays itself as Cambodia’s number one economic partner.
  • China is a responsible member of the international community and helps Cambodia— and the world—fight COVID-19. PRC media’s Khmer-language reporting highlights China’s contributions to Cambodia’s fight against COVID-19, while accusing the US of failing to live up to its own international obligations.

Despite the privileges offered by the Hun Sen government, PRC state-run media appears to have had limited success supplanting the enduring popularity—and credibility—of Western media outlets such as RFA, VOA, and Radio France Internationale (RFI).

  • When we spoke with Cambodian media professionals and experts, a recurring theme was that PRC media suffers from a lack of credibility among audiences in Cambodia.
  • Several local Cambodian media experts also noted that PRC media outlets partner exclusively with pro-government Cambodian media outlets, which also lack credibility among Cambodian audiences.

Issues to watch

The Hun Sen government has welcomed PRC media, as well as Chinese investment in Cambodian media outlets and ICT. Nevertheless, Chinese narratives face challenges. Some issues to watch that would indicate that Chinese narratives are becoming more or less impactful include the following:

  • Xinhua or other PRC state-run media launching Khmer online news portals. Of China’s state-run media outlets, only CRI publishes news and information in Khmer. In neighbouring Mekong countries, both CRI and Xinhua operate local-language news outlets, but this is not currently the case in Cambodia. If China launches a Khmer Xinhua portal, Facebook page, or mobile application, it would indicate that China values a second outlet (in addition to CRI) where it can exercise full editorial control over narratives it aims to promote to local audiences.
  • An increase in the popularity and perceived credibility of Chinese-financed, Cambodia-based media outlets. Outlets in Cambodia that receive Chinese support appear to make little effort to conceal their patronage. If these outlets achieve widespread popularity— and establish greater credibility among Cambodian audiences—PRC narratives might be more likely to gain traction.
  • An increase in publicly expressed anti-China sentiment. Local media experts and media reporting suggest that anti-China sentiment is most noticeable in areas targeted by growing Chinese investment. These sentiments, especially if reflected in local media, may be a key indicator that Chinese narratives are failing to resonate with local audiences.
  • More joint production of content between PRC and Cambodian media outlets. Cambodian media professionals suggested that content that is jointly produced by PRC media outlets together with local Cambodian media outlets would be more likely to resonate with local audiences, compared to exported PRC media content.

Recommendations from experts & media professionals in the region

The Cambodian media professionals and experts with whom we spoke over the course of our research suggested ways that the international community could help to support the integrity of Cambodia’s information environment. These include the following:

  • Support the establishment of a regional media alliance. Political sensitivities in Cambodia make it difficult for local journalists to report on some domestic issues, but reporters in neighboring countries may not face similar restrictions. Journalists based in other countries could publish investigative reporting about local events in Cambodia, creating an opportunity for local journalists to pick up the story. This would provide a layer of protection for Cambodia-based journalists who report on politically sensitive topics.
  • Provide funding for independent media. In an environment in which just a handful of outlets receive an estimated 99 percent of advertising revenue, smaller independent media outlets often struggle to survive financially. This makes Chinese funding more attractive. Independent media needs sustainable funding that does not seek to influence or compromise the journalistic integrity of their work. Reports by the Center for International Media Assistance provide useful resources for international donors looking for effective strategies for supporting independent media.
  • Support efforts to promote digital literacy. External actors like China use trends like the complexity of the modern information environment and the rise of social media to promote misleading information. Providing media consumers in Cambodia with the skills to find, identify, evaluate, and use information, especially on social media, will empower audiences to form views and opinions based on truthful information.
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Distribution: Approved for public release. Unlimited distribution

Details

  • Pages: 92
  • Document Number: IIM-2020-U-026221-Final
  • Publication Date: 9/1/2020
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