Friday, 19 June 2009

Cambodian state TV comedians ridicule government critics - Feature

Posted : Thu, 18 Jun 2009
Author : DPA

Phnom Penh - Two programmes on state-run television have begun using humour to rebuff government critics, but rights groups say it will take more than cheap laughs to distract Cambodians from endemic corruption and misuse of power. Three television networks began airing sketches this month satirizing rights groups and journalists who regularly denounce human rights violations and corruption among Cambodia's political elite.

Ou Ponarath, a writer and performer for the programme on the Bayon TV network, said the sketches aimed to highlight the "misguided views" of government critics and the greed of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

"I think it is important to criticize these NGOs because often they criticize the government in a way that is not constructive," he said. "Not all NGOs do this, but we are using these programmes as a fishing net to catch the groups who are doing the wrong thing."

In the first sketch, which was aired on the KTV network, a character known as Mr Honda asks his friend how he afforded an oversize diamond ring and a gold necklace.

His friend replies that he started an NGO, which Mr Honda describes as an "organization for insults."

"It was formed to insult," the friend replies, before chanting, "Corruption, corruption, corrupt government, change, change, change. Once you know how to insult like this, money comes right away."

In a sketch penned by Ou Ponarath, a fictitious translator for an NGO convinces a Western journalist that there is no need to leave his hotel room and visit eviction sites because all the necessary information is included in a report by his organization.

Ou Ponarath, who is also a member of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), said he decided to write the sketches after reading about an anti-corruption awareness concert held in Phnom Penh in May, where US Ambassador Carol Ridley said corruption cost Cambodia more than 500 million dollars every year.

"The idea to write these sketches didn't come from anybody higher up in the government," he said. "It was our idea."

CPP officials condemned Ridley's comments at the time, saying they could damage relations between Cambodia and the US. But she was not alone in voicing concern over corruption and human rights abuses in the developing country.

Cambodia's leaders often claim to have fostered one of the highest levels of media freedom in the region, but observers say the first half of this year has been marked by a party effort to use legal measures to smother the views of its harshest critics.

In early June, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights accused the government of limiting free speech through a series of lawsuits against journalists and opposition politicians.

"This recent surge in the use of criminal defamation and misinformation lawsuits filed mostly against politicians, journalists ... threatens to inhibit what should be a free debate and exchange of ideas and views," the UN office said in a statement.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the ruling party to "stop its threats, harassment and spurious legal action against members of parliament and lawyers defending free expression."

Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, said the government was becoming increasingly sensitive to criticism because of a growing potential for unrest among the country's most disadvantaged citizens.

"The economic problems that have led to many factory closures, along with land evictions and high inflation, have created serious social instability in Cambodia," he said. "The government now feels vulnerable to increasing social unrest."

He said the recent comedy sketches showed this vulnerability and highlighted a deep hypocrisy on the part of party officials.

"These sketches accused NGO workers of becoming rich from the work they do, but in reality they can't even make enough money to own their own houses," he said. "On the other hand, some ministers and government officials own more than 10 or 20 houses."

Sek Borisoth, country coordinator for Pact, a US-based anti-corruption organization, said the sketches would do little to undermine people's faith in the work of rights groups.

"I have no problem with the shows making such criticism because freedom of expression is an important part of a free society," he said. "But people will make up their own minds about the work that rights groups do."

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