PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — JOURNALISTS seldom hide in a rice sack or masquerade as a baby's father. But in Cambodia, where fighting has escalated in recent months, reporters have used such ruses to stay out of the cross hairs of the enemy's gun sights.
Both sides on the battlefield use reports from their own ``war correspondents'' to influence world opinion, since what is written about the conflict is often more important than what actually happens.
That the pen is considered mightier than the sword helps explain why the Khmer Rouge offer a $10,000 reward to any Cambodian who kills an ``enemy'' journalist.
This is an almost unwinnable war, an arena for big-power conflict, as Vietnam discovered after 10 years of fighting. Its troops pulled out in late September, leaving behind a client regime threatened by three guerrilla forces. Since few foreign journalists have risked eyewitness battle reports, foreign news media often rely on the propagandized reports from the antagonists.
Whether it is Khmer Rouge radio broadcasts or the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian News Agency (SPK) reports, both sides issue mounds of dubious statistics on enemies killed and weapons seized.
``If you add up all the `body counts' claimed by both sides, the total would be more than double the population of Cambodia,'' says an Australian intelligence agent who watches Cambodia.
One side claims the other is poisoning wells or feeding babies to crocodiles. The other charges that girls are being forced to become prostitutes and seduce enemy fighters to desert.
``Sometimes our numbers on `enemy killed' are not really enemy, but innocent people,'' admits Thlang Sarun, foreign director of SPK. ``We must support the Army to win the war.''
The editors of Cambodia's few national periodicals also are members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The largest news operation is SPK, which has more than 100 reporters.
Until 1985, Vietnam carefully monitored what was written by its Cambodian ally.
``Vietnamese journalists would send our reporters to the front to make reports,'' Mr. Thlang says.
One SPK reporter was recently trapped in a village when Khmer Rouge guerrillas marched through. Being from the city, his lighter skin made him a giveaway as an outsider compared with the darker-skinned peasants who spend their days under the sun.
The journalist thought fast. ``He threw on a farmer's hat, jumped on a bed, and asked a peasant woman to give him a rub down,'' Thlang says. ``In Cambodia, that's what you do with someone who has malaria, and malaria makes your skin go lighter.''
The Khmer Rouge mistook the reporter for a sick peasant. Female reporters are not allowed on the front - their citified skin is much too light compared to that of peasant women.
Another SPK reporter was almost spotted by a Khmer Rouge fighter in Siem Reap province, but escaped after a woman pinched her baby to make it cry and then handed it to the reporter. By cuddling a wailing infant like a concerned father, the journalist escaped notice.
Conning the enemy is as important as evading him. When the Khmer Rouge recently claimed they captured a village, an SPK reporter slipped into the area inside a rice sack on a bullock cart. He took a photo to show the village is not captive.
War-front assignments are highly prized among Cambodian journalists and usually last two to three years. Reporters receive three or four times their normal pay for such assignments.
The news media frequently are just a propaganda tool. Last year, the Phnom Penh regime advised its journalists to ``whip up'' hatred against the Khmer Rouge, interview victims of the Khmer Rouge period, and help foreign intellectuals issue messages of support for the government.
The regime's journalists did not have their first congress until December 1987, eight years after the regime was installed by Vietnam's military ouster of the Khmer Rouge. Enemy journalists often listen to each other's radio communications, ``and sometimes we talk to each other, just for fun,'' Thlang says.
The Phnom Penh regime relies on reports by foreign journalists for much of its credibility. The Vietnamese troop withdrawal, for instance, was ``verified'' by the presence of hundreds of journalists. Visiting foreign reporters are ranked by the regime - white, black, or gray - depending on the slant of their coverage.
A ``black'' rating sometimes results in being denied a visa.