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CAMBODIA: Media Still Struggling to Break Gender Barriers

Lynette Lee Corporal

PHNOM PENH, Dec 20 2009 (IPS) - Cambodia’s media organisations are a ‘battleground’ for old ways and new approaches when it comes to gender.

While more media entities are recognising the role women play in and outside newsrooms, prevailing mindsets and traditions, as well as the lack of training and experience tend to slow down progress in gender sensitivity and equality.

Although the number of media organisations have clearly increased since 1993, after the elections overseen by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia that ended decades of conflict, many Cambodians still see journalism as a ‘man’s world’. The Cambodian media are “still a very male-dominated industry,” says Cambodia’s English-language daily ‘The Phnom Penh Post’ editor-in-chief Seth Meixner.

As of October 2009, Cambodia has 341 newspapers, 119 magazines, 22 radio stations and seven television outfits.

Meixner adds that whatever gender sensitivity-related issues they put out in the paper will certainly reach audiences, particularly its Khmer-language edition’s readers. “Will they change opinions? Maybe on a small scale. I don’t think it’s going to shift centuries of social thinking,” he adds.

French-Khmer daily ‘Cambodge Soir’ journalist Ung Chansophea welcomes seeing more women taking communications and journalism courses in college. “I think more women are joining the media industry and are even sometimes better at it than men. There’s room for improvement, though. Still, the society views the industry as a job for males and many women still agree to this thinking,” she adds.


Indeed, traditional thinking still sees women as mainly homebound. The pressure usually comes from the parents themselves who discourage their daughters from pursuing a career in journalism.

“Parents don’t like their daughters to go away from home and communicate with all kinds of people because they think it’s not good and even dangerous,” says Tive Sarayeth, executive director of the Women’s Media Centre of Cambodia, a non-government organisation that was formed in 1995 to increase women’s participation in the media.

Meixner adds that tradition is so ingrained in the Cambodian society’s psyche that he once heard a ministerial official say that she did not think “women are ready” to be involved in politics and that “they belong in the home.”

He says, “In my previous work for another newspaper, a female colleague started out as a very good journalist, but three months afterwards, she quit (due to parental pressure).” Apart from the ‘dangers’ posed by the job, Meixner recalled his female colleague as saying that “they (parents) want me to marry this guy, I’m going to have kids and I can’t work after that.”

“I do think this still exists as an issue, but at the same time, kind of parallel to that, you do have a generation of young women reporters who, I think, are much more independent-minded than perhaps their predecessors,” he says.

In the ‘Phnom Penh Post’, Meixner says there are an increasing number of women applicants who are still in their third or fourth year communications course but eager to get writing experience. “There are more women applicants in general. A lot of those kids are already working for us and quite a few of them are women,” he says.

Then there is a general perception even among women journalists that they can never be as good as their male counterparts. “The women themselves think that being journalists is a man’s job, not a woman’s. She also fears she is incapable of doing her job well because it might just be too much for her and that she might neglect her family in the process,” explains Tive.

Thus, at least now, women journalists end up being assigned more to cover the so-called ‘lighter news’, including society, lifestyle, health, and education, to name a few.

“People still think that women journalists should write about something else other than ‘more serious stuff’. When we try to get information from higher-ups, they look at us as like, ‘Oh, that girl can’t write that kind of story’,” Ung adds.

Ung’s goal is to learn how to interact with such news sources and “to feel free” doing so. “I want to show them that there are enough intelligent women journalists out there and that we can do the story as well as our male counterparts,” she says.

Meixner agrees, saying “they (male reporters) just think, ‘women can’t cover that, she’s just a girl and she can’t actually do that.”

As for women journalists getting more leverage when interviewing sources, he says it really depends on the journalists and how enlightened the sources are.

“I’ve seen sources refuse to speak to a journalist because she was a woman. Female journalists also get very nervous not being able to deal with an interviewee, and sometimes male interviewees flirt with female journalists,” he says, adding that it is also the same with some male journalists who completely clam up in front of a police official or a government official.

Editors of the ‘Post’ and ‘Cambodge Soir’ actively try to encourage their women reporters to cover not just feature pieces but also political and social issues.

The in-house training of journalists in their respective media outfits is almost non-existent, Tive says. She also agrees that it is also difficult to gather these journalists to “sit and listen” to a one-day workshop “because they need to cover (the news)”.

What she finds very difficult, however, is to invite editors-in-chief to attend skills and gender sensitivity training sessions. “Even if we try to educate journalists to be gender sensitive, if their editors don’t have that kind of gender perspective, it’s useless,” she says.

Tive says she sees a difference in the way men and women write. Women tend to go deeper and try to understand the reasons why, say, a sex worker got into her ‘profession’. In contrast, male journalists may tend to be more matter-of-fact, or worse, launch into a blame game. “If men write, he blames the woman, rather than go into the deeper aspects of an issue,” she says.

“When I write about women’s issues, I want to dig deeper into why things are that way and I use more sensitive words to describe the situation. I think for men, on the other hand, when they write about women’s issues, they write just for information. I’m not generalising but normally, it’s like that here,” says Ung.

On issues like health and gender parity, Meixner notes that women are generally better informed and not as dismissive of such matters. “But it’s weird… for, say, trafficking of women stories, there is not much sensitivity from the male and female reporters, especially when the women involved are non-Cambodians,” he says.

Both the ‘Post’ and ‘Cambodge Soir’ staff say the publications do follow gender-sensitive language, although, admittedly, not on a consistent basis. For instance, both now try to use consistently the phrase ‘beer promotion girls’ rather than ‘beer girls’, a term often equated with girls engaged in sex work.

Of late, Tive says, there has been an increase in reports on sexual assault on women and newspapers, and that magazines — notorious for graphic images and screaming headlines — are presenting these on their front pages.

But many of these newspapers now also follow ethical considerations and try to present balanced views. “While magazines continue to show graphic images of dead bodies and the like, newspapers have become more sensitive,” says Tive.

Likewise, she says, newspapers have stopped featuring pornographic images. Local magazines, however, are still notorious for their sensational and graphic images. Blood and gore have big readership.

“The Cambodian media are underdeveloped in terms of a sense of what’s acceptable and what’s not. We’re talking about a very basic press corps here. There’s a lack of education and lack of media experience,” says Meixner.

Of this penchant for violent images, Ung explains: “I think the violent culture in Cambodia is still there, a result of the Khmer regime. Papers publish them because there are still many people who want to see these things.”

For Tive, writing about women as ‘victims’ of a violent crime, for instance, is a double-edged sword. “Portraying women as victims reinforces the stereotype that women are weak, decorations and sex objects. But on the other hand, it is also a good way of increasing awareness about women’s issues,” she says.

Tive says it is important to think of different issues that touch on gender issues, such as health and economic issues that affect women.

“Through our radio programme, we always emphasise the impacts of a social issue to women,” explains Tive. “So a man who smokes tobacco, for instance, not only affects a woman’s health but also the family’s livelihood. The landmine problem also impacts on the woman if the husband or the son becomes disabled.”

 
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