BANGKOK, Thailand - Two months after a coup by strongman Hun Sen, what had been the most booisterous voices of Cambodia's nascent civil society are now silent. Dozens of journalists who had worked for media that criticized Hun Sen are in hiding or are exiled in Thailand, and they say it is still too dangerous to return home. Most of the remaining media kowtow to Hun Sen, just as they did when his then-Communist Party ruled Cambodia in the 1980s.
The world must keep this in mind when gauging the state of democracy in Cambodia. Journalists were targeted during the July 5-6 coup that deposed Hun Sen's co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Those remaining in Cambodia are still targeted now. They receive anonymous telephone death threats. Security forces visit their offices and homes for "weapons confiscation" - the same pretext used to intimidate dissident political party members. During these visits, the police ask for a list of the names and addresses of newspaper staff members. And some journalists say they are being followed.
All this is being reported by investigators at the United Nations Human Rights Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. Hun Sen wants to silence them, too. He recently accused them of lying in alleging abuses by his government, and he wants them replaced. Hun Sen, who has been trying to convince everyone that his government is legitimate, has urged the exiles to return home, restart their papers and criticize him once more. But most of the journalists say they will not return without protection from foreigners; they remember how Hun Sen's forces summarily executed dozens of Ranariddh's associates during and after the coup.
"We cannot go back now," said one reporter, Soy Sopheap, 26. "If someone wants to kill me, they can just say: 'You're a member of Ranariddh's party.' It's easy."
U.N. peacekeepers from the United States and four dozen other countries introduced a free press as part of a $2 billion mission in 1991-1993 to bring peace and democracy to Cambodia. Before the creation of the free press, Cambodia had five state-controlled media.
Like the human rights and other citizens' groups born at the same time, the numerous new, privately owned publications broke the government monopoly on information, barged into the political arena with loud new opinions and demands, and encouraged people long cowed by Communist dictators to defend their rights. The media helped ensure the success of the 1993 election, although the new coalition government was constantly rocked by power struggles between Hun Sen and Ranariddh.
The United States, which has condemned the coup but accepts the reality that Hun Sen is now in charge, is counting on the next election to restore political legitimacy and peace in Cambodia. But the chances of fair polls are slight if there are no media giving exposure to the opposition parties, encouraging public discussion and exposing abuses.
"Any talk of a free media is a joke," said a U.N. human rights official who requested anonymity. "Hun Sen controls all electronic media and nearly all the newspapers. It is done by force, by intimidation and by money. How can Hun Sen seriously suggest the country can hold free and fair elections in May 1998?"
Journalists in Phnom Penh can no longer seek help from opposition politicians if they get into trouble. In fact, they cannot even quote their views in their stories: All of the outspoken politicians have fled into exile.
All of the 20 or so newspapers and broadcast outlets that had been critical of Hun Sen closed during the coup. A handful have restarted, but it is not yet clear how viable or independent they truly are. The publisher of the newspaper Antarakum (Intervention) told reporters that the day before resuming publication July 28, an anonymous caller told him he may be murdered if his paper criticized the government as it did before.
Another newspaper that restarted, Udom Gati Khmer (Khmer Conscience), has dropped its telephone number and address from the masthead, and moved its office to a secret location. Independent analysts say Hun Sen has bought over some journalists and is financing some of these papers to create the impression that a free press still exists. In any case, these papers are being snapped up at news stands by citizens eager to know more than what the overtly state-controlled media feed them.
There also are a few foreign-financed, independent papers, but these are in English or French and thus read only by foreigners and the tiny Cambodian elite. They include the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily, both published by American journalists.
With most of the opposition media now gone, Cambodian-language broadcasts of the Voice of America, which funded by the U.S. government, have become the leading source of independent news for many people. But listeners have to keep the volume low.