Over the past three decades, Cambodia has suffered just about every kind of conflict imaginable: civil wars, air wars and border wars. And now that a modicum of peace has been restored, the country is enjoying an old-fashioned newspaper circulation war.
What's even more surprising is that the two principal adversaries are English-language newspapers in a country where English is not widely spoken. Both publications are owned by foreigners.
First on the streets was the Phnom Penh Post, owned and edited by Michael G. Hayes, a laconic American who formerly headed the Bangkok office of the Asia Foundation, a philanthropic organization. As he readily admits, Hayes had no previous journalistic experience before his maiden effort in Phnom Penh.
Soon after the Post appeared, it was joined by the Cambodia Times, which is owned by Hong Kong Chinese investors and edited by a Malaysian, Kamaralzaman Tambu, who runs a public relations firm in Kuala Lumpur.
"Many people consider the Cambodia Times a bit pro-government and the Phnom Penh Post a tad more independent," said Khieu Kanarith, former editor of a government newspaper who is now a spokesman for the Phnom Penh regime. "At least we have a breath of fresh air in our newspaper industry."
To show how dramatically things have changed in Cambodia since last October's international peace agreement, only two years ago Kanarith lost his job as editor of the dogmatic Communist Party newspaper because he was thought too liberal. Now the Phnom Penh Post carries stories suggesting the Phnom Penh regime is shelling its own troops to discredit its rivals, and not a murmur of complaint has been raised.
"I get away with much, much more here than I ever would be able to in Malaysia," said the Cambodia Times' Tambu.
In terms of financial resources, the weekly Cambodia Times is far ahead of its rival. It started with an investment of around $500,000, according to Tambu, and has an editorial staff of 14 people. In late November, it began publishing a sister edition translated from English into the Khmer language.
Hayes, who financed the Post out of his own pocket, said its start-up cost around $50,000, and he has been running in the black for the last five issues from a combination of advertising sales and circulation. But the Post, with nine staffers, needs more computer equipment before it can go from twice-a-month publication to compete with a weekly like the Times.
Competition between the two newspapers started ferociously months ago, when Hayes first tried to get a paper named the Cambodia Times off the ground. After waiting months for government approval, he discovered to his horror that the Phnom Penh government had registered that name to another company, forcing Hayes to choose another title.
A senior U.N. official recalled that Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the nominal Cambodian head of state, had to throw a public tantrum before Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to give permission for the Phnom Penh Post to go ahead, so reluctant were government officials to allow outsiders to publish in Cambodia.
As in most formerly Communist countries, the press in Cambodia previously had been divided by interest group, with newspapers representing the army, the party and labor unions. In recent months, these newspapers--which are really scarcely more than mouthpieces for their sponsoring organizations--have been joined by the publications of rival political factions, which tend to be long on strident criticism of the government and short on news.
The Times and the Post arrived in time to fill a gaping need for information rather than propaganda, but the rivalry often obscures the benefit. "The Times is in the government's pocket," Hayes said of his rival. "Our reporting is much more balanced."
While denying that he is pro-government, Tambu conceded that his paper is more cautious about what it reports. "I come from an Asian country, and I know there are things that are inflammatory. We have to avoid that."
Tambu said that the audiences for the two papers, which are both tabloid, are quite different, with the Times being "fast-moving" and the Post "more analytical." He said 60% of the Times' readers are English-speaking Cambodians.
The Post seems to appeal more to the massive U.N. contingent in the country with such service features as a restaurant critic (only a year ago Phnom Penh had only two restaurants) and a gossip columnist.
In fact, the newspapers are so different, and there is so little available to read in Cambodia, that most people who can afford it seem to buy both papers.
The two newspapers have clashed over circulation claims because the Cambodia Times maintains that it has 40,000 circulation in English and 80,000 in Khmer, a figure many observers consider high considering the number of English speakers in the country. The Post is selling only around 5,000 copies.
Because there are few printing facilities in Cambodia, both newspapers are published overseas. The Times is actually edited and printed in Kuala Lumpur and then flown to Phnom Penh, while the Post is printed in Bangkok.