Singapore — In the global battle for sympathy over Cambodia, noncommunist newspapers in Asia, America, and Australia have become increasingly controversial propaganda weapons.
Both the vietnam-dominated Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh and the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge guerrillas have stepped up their effort to use visiting journalists.
One of their aims is to sway world opinion on the tricky question of who should represent Cambodia in the United Nations. Vietnam wants the seat now held by the Khmer rouge transferred to the Heng Samrin government. The result is that journalists who accept invitations to visit Khmer Rouge bases in western Cambodia or the Vietnam-occupied zone to the east are coming under increasing political attack.
Those who report from vietnamese-controlled areas on evidence of past Khmer Rouge atrocities or on signs of economic improvement draw fire for aiding Vietnam's efforts to justify its presence.
Also under suspicion are reporters whovisit Khmer Rouge base areas and describe guerrilla leaders' denials of atrocities, their assertions that they no longer allow brutality, and their claims of popular support. The journalists are accused of helping the Khmer Rouge continue its military struggle and political campaign to be recongnized as Cambodia's legitimate government in the UN.
The harshest criticism has been directed against journalists visiting Vietnamese-held areas. Some of the chiding comes from fellow journalists. Veteran Vietnam-watcher Allan Dawson of the Bangkok Post recently published a critique of reports by Australian journalist John Pilger.
He accused Mr. Pilger of inaccurate reporting and of misjudgment that resulted in dispatches tending to favor Vietnam. His articles appeared in the Australian and British press, datelined Phnom Penh.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a strong opponent of the vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, voiced criticism, too. In New Delhi recently, he told Australian journalists to "stop believing that the media can settle history. You are not going to settle the fate of the world. Nor even the fate of Kampuchea [Cambodia]."
Singapore's government-oriented newspaper the Straits Times recently strongly criticized Western newsmen for making a "beeline for Phnom Penh" and responding to a "PR campaign by the vietnamese . . . conducted with the ruthless efficiency of Madison Avenue."
But the next day's issue of the Straits Times caused some to charge "double standard." The lead story was based on visits by its own correspondents to a Khmer Rouge base, detailing without comment Premier Khieu Samphan's claims to large-scale guerrilla successes. Ironically, amid all the controversy a report surfaced that Phnom Penh has closed its doors to foreign journalists until further notice. The Cambodian Embassy in Vietnam later denied the report.