“Equity Weekly” – A Good Governance Media Initiative

Him Suong, Has Sam Ath and Nget Saborak, Cambodia

Taking the opportunity of this forum, we are proud to describe one of the projects developed in Cambodia to strengthen democracy and the electoral processes, using the media and in particular the national television network of Cambodia, TVK.

In 2003, the Ministry of Information turned over a new leaf in its media development for good governance. In collaboration with the UNDP SDEP (Strengthening Democracy and Electoral Processes) project in Cambodia, this has become a key activity and a model to highlight how to better address democracy through the media. The project has been running since 2003, has covered three national elections with daily newscasts and has also developed a unique in-between ballot current affairs TV show that has a strong impact on the development and changes of policies currently developed in Cambodia.

To better understand the value of this show, we wish to introduce the context within which this activity is taking place.

In 2003 when we started this initiative, the media in Cambodia were still under a lot of strain due to the concerns for security that followed years of civil war in our country. Politically, it was seen by both government and local observers that the media largely supported the main ruling party and that there was a lack of coverage of the opposition parties during election time. Given this imbalance, it would be difficult to recognize the elections as free and fair. In a bid to improve the situation, we developed a unique program called “Equity News”. It lasted for the entire duration of the election campaign, with daily newscasts of 15 minutes, giving all parties airtime during the official election news bulletin. A formula of equitability was developed and agreed by all parties. This was branded a media revolution by international bodies. For the first time on national television, we opened up airtime for the expression of all parties, covering the campaigns with balanced, fair and impartial information. We can admit that this was a huge challenge for the staff who faced a lot of pressure from political parties as most could not understand why they were not being treated equally but proportionately. In the end, and today, all parties support this initiative.

One of the first problems of the project was to provide audiences with useful information on political party platforms. In 2003, to summarize very broadly, the various political boards had few discussions on their platforms. They would rather focus on campaigning and conducting popular rallies. But debates were hard to manage by the media as most of the time the political parties relied on populist propaganda and on damaging the other parties’ reputations. Slander and insults became common practice. The missing link was the lack of political expression of campaigns.

Based on this finding, the Ministry and UNDP discussed and found a way to help by developing an in-between ballots current affairs TV show. This new show covers all the important issues affecting the people of Cambodia, the government and the development of the country. It looks at issues of governance on a weekly basis, with a follow up on the major legislations being discussed or developed. In this segment of the show, all political parties are given a chance to express their views. Balance and fairness are key to ensure the continuation of this show.

The main body of the show is a two part video documentary, each tagged by a studio discussion with an expert from civil society. People’s views are systematically recorded and relayed on the theme discussed so that we can create a true sense of political participation between the electorate and the various political boards while also taking into consideration the guidance of civil society. The show also includes a feature on upcoming issues and concerns in Khmer society.

Worth mentioning is that a small, but important, section of the show is dedicated to journalists’ comments on social issues. This is particularly effective in inculcating a sense of mission in our journalists.

We have now produced over 140 shows each of 45 minutes duration. Most of these can be accessed on YouTube and on the project’s website. In order to reveal the scope of the activity, we would also like to bring your attention to the use of a variety of media for further expanding the reach of the show.

The show is aired three times a week during evening peak hours, and on satellite channels for our compatriots overseas. Further to this, over 200 DVD copies are made weekly (with subtitles) to deliver to the English speaking audiences (mostly civil society organizations, bilateral organizations and embassies). The program has also been widely used in the provinces for a number of mobile showings, some led by UNDP themselves, and others led by partners keen to air good informative material. For example, our shows are being used by cultural and education organizations that can benefit from free, high quality programming on issues related to their work. Particular care was taken to deliver the show to a number of universities in Cambodia both in Phnom Penh and in the provinces.

Today, this project has successfully covered two general elections and one communal election, bringing the voices of local representatives to the ears and eyes of national audiences. The current affairs TV show has been a key factor in influencing daily political decisions of the leaders of the country.

In developing this initiative, the concern of the government was to improve transparency of the political process, encourage participation in the development of laws and policies, and better back-stop the activities of government officials through discussions. We consider this to have reached a high level of success, given the initially challenging situation and the advances that the show has continued to make. We consider this to be one of the highlights in the development of good governance practices through the media in Cambodia.

The UNDP is also looking with keen interest at this project, which has become a key model and blue print for election broadcasting. The initiative may be used and replicated in other places in the world where political dialogue is being constructed. We are happy to host and support this initiative as it has given us valuable insights into the ways good governance can be promoted through a national media channel – something that was previously thought impossible by most people in Cambodia.

H.E. Mr Him Suong is Deputy Director-General of the Cambodian Ministry of Information; Mr Has Sam Ath is Deputy Director-General of the Ministry’s Administration & Audio-visual Department; Mr Nget Saborak is Deputy Director of Overseas Broadcasting Department, National Radio Kampuchea.