Cambodia has been a hotbed for journalists for decades, with reporters from across the globe stationed in the Kingdom. Editor Marissa Carruthers takes a look at its appeal. Photography by Charles Fox.
It was a balmy day in February and Cloud Bar in Phnom Penh was packed with a group of about 70 foreigners from across the globe. The smell of barbecued meat wafted through the air along with chatter of the latest scoop, predictions on the upcoming elections and that day’s headlines.
“Most were under the age of 35,” says Overseas Press Club Cambodia (OPCC) treasurer Luke Hunt of the journalists who attended the organisation’s barbecue. “That speaks volumes about Cambodia’s place in the world. Cambodia has a vibrant journalist scene.”
For decades, the country has attracted journalists from far and wide, both fresh and seasoned, to report on its tumultuous history and recent race for development. From the civil war and the Khmer Rouge reign to the Vietnamese invasion for liberation, the UN peace-keeping mission, and the first democratic elections, through to land-grabbing, illegal logging, corruption, human rights, political turmoil, protests and the rapid growth of the country today, the Kingdom of Wonder is a hotbed for roving reporters searching for a scoop.
“Southeast Asia as a whole is a great place to be as a journalist,” says seasoned reporter, Hunt. “I read a column the other day saying someone was arrested in Indonesia because they didn’t believe in God while in Vietnam someone was arrested because they did believe in God. You’ve got Muslims and Buddhists and Christians, rich and poor, developed and undeveloped. Everything is so extreme; it’s extraordinary, and at the centre is Cambodia.”
Passing the Baton
“In the old days, it was mad,” recalls Hunt. “People don’t appreciate how different Cambodia was back then. The roads buckled and broke, and threats continued, not from the government but from Khmer Rouge bandits, who were running wild.”
Stationed in Vietnam as a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP), Hunt ventured across the border into Cambodia in 1994 after a trio of Australian, French and British backpackers were abducted by the Khmer Rouge in Kampot and later shot during a botched $50,000 ransom demand.
He returned to the country several times in the 1990s before being appointed AFP’s bureau chief for Cambodia, joining the flurry of foreign correspondents permanently stationed there for global news agencies. “In those days, there was AFP, Associated Press, Reuters, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, you name it. These were fulltime foreign correspondents on full salaries. You don’t have that anymore.”
During this time, Hunt worked alongside some of the country’s stalwart journalists, including Reach Sambath, who was one of the first Cambodians to work for a news agency, working with AFP since 1991, covering the country’s first democratic elections, a coup, the collapse of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s death. He went on to become the spokesman for the Khmer Rouge tribunals but died in 2011 at the age of 47 from a stroke. “I worked with some terrific journalists,” says Hunt.
In July 1992, the Phnom Penh Post published its first edition, paving the way for independent media in Cambodia, and throwing open wider doors to both local journalists and foreign reporters wanting to base themselves in the country. The Cambodia Daily followed suit in 1993, with the third English-language national newspaper market hitting the streets in April 2014 in the form of the Khmer Times.
“There aren’t many places in the world where you can step in as a young, unproven journalist and get the opportunity to, fairly quickly, cover weighty issues,” says Phnom Penh Post editor-in-chief, Chad Williams, who previously worked at the Hollywood Reporter.
It was this factor that got freelance reporter and photojournalist, Lauren Crothers, hooked when she spotted a vacancy at The Cambodia Daily after her one-year contract at the Toronto Star ran out. “The news here was so interesting,” says Crothers, who landed in the Kingdom in September 2010.
“There was a whole Shakespearean drama being played out on the political landscape, I got to cover the Khmer Rouge tribunals, which had been a pipedream. I’ve also always been interested in human interest stories and social justice, and there’s so much of that here. I feel for any journalist, particularly young ones, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into.”
The country’s volatile history, economic standing, fast development and tainted human rights record, coupled with cheap and relatively easy living, have led to a swathe of young foreign journalists clamouring to sell a slice of Cambodia’s news.
“There are some incredibly talented journalists here, working probably on far less than elsewhere in the world,” says Colin Meyn, The Cambodia Daily’s editor-in-chief. “But they have the opportunity of writing news stories that are intriguing and on a scale that would take them years to cover elsewhere in the world.”
Throw into the mix the global downturn in print media, with redundancies rife in newsrooms across the world and newspapers folding or moving towards digital platforms – UK national newspaper The Independent shifted all operations online in February, a move expected to be mirrored by other publications in the future – while Cambodia continues to enjoy a strong print media culture, and it’s little wonder the Kingdom of Wonder remains top of the list for fresh-faced journalists looking to kick-start their careers.
“The industry has been in a free-fall for the last few years,” says Crothers, who worked at The Cambodia Daily for four years before going freelance. “Here, I feel it has been sheltered from that newspaper earthquake and the aftershock that has rippled across the world. There are still opportunities in Cambodia.”
Freedom of the Press
“It’s very important a country has good, reliable news. People make decisions on it,” says Prak Chan Thul, Cambodian correspondent for news, Thomson Reuters.
Currently, Cambodia enjoys a relatively free press in comparison to neighbouring countries. A Reporters Without Borders report released last month revealed Cambodia has moved up 11 spots to 128 out of 180 countries in the annual press freedom global ranking. This put it ahead of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, with those countries placed 136th, 173rd and 175th respectively. The report flagged up concerns surrounding the safety of those covering sensitive issues, such as illegal logging and trafficking, as well as the media being indirectly controlled by the government. It adds that defamation and damaging the country’s image are the most frequently used charges.
However, there are gaps when it comes to Khmer and English-language media, with officials rarely tampering with the latter. “Often the government pay more attention to what’s written in Khmer and that can create more difficulties for them,” says Hunt. “There is a culture among Cambodian journalists of fearlessness,” adds Meyn, despite legal threats and intimidation.
Prak, who became a journalist in 2002 to satisfy a need to “witness what’s going on in my country first-hand”, says as a Cambodian journalist, he feels “free to report”. Although, there have been occasions where he has received official letters accusing him of “not being nationalistic”. “I don’t feel threatened for my life or anything,” he adds.
However, a Reporters Without Borders report paints a different picture. Published in November, it named Cambodia as the most dangerous place to work as an environmental journalist. The Hostile Climate for Environmental Journalists paper highlights four reporters killed in the country since 2010 – all Cambodian.
In 2014, Taing Try was investigating illegal logging in Kratie province when he was shot in the head by a soldier. In a separate incident, Suon Chan was beaten to death while reporting on illegal fishing in Kampong Chhnang. In 2012, Hang Serei Odom was discovered in the trunk of his car with axe wounds to the head after researching illegal logging in Ratanakiri, and environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot dead by military police while accompanying two The Cambodia Daily journalists to logging sites in Koh Kong.
“That situation was a reminder that we take a lot for granted here,” says Crothers, whose former Daily colleagues witnessed Chut’s murder. “For foreign reporters here, by and large, we can do our jobs without any real interruption. Cambodians are dealing with a completely different environment. I’m always aware of the privilege of being a foreign journalist in Cambodia. We don’t have the same risks.”
While English-language papers, such as the Daily and Post, pride themselves on trawling through masses of misinformation to unearth the truth, and report news objectively, the Cambodian media often lags behind. Common complaints include self-censorship to avoid conflict with officials, advertisers and organisations, heavy political bias, and reporters accepting cash payments at press conferences and seeking out stories only to spike them in order to extort money from those involved.
While the death of print media in the Kingdom may well be further down the line than in other parts of the world, change is on the horizon. Many newspapers have embraced the web and social media, and Khmer news websites, such as Fresh News and Thmey Thmey, are mushrooming.
“We are in the same position as most of the world,” says Williams. “The future is definitely digital, it just seems no-one has figured out how to monetise the web yet.”
A swelling young population, who are hungry for information and have instant access to the internet, has also led to a huge surge in Facebook pages devoted to news. “Facebook is powerful,” says Prak. “People like to receive their information via Facebook because it’s easier and they can access it on their smartphones and tablets, even the government realises its importance.”
Citizen journalism has also seen a sharp rise within the Cambodian market, with people using their phones and tablets to film situations as they unfold and posting them online. “The most exciting development in journalism at the moment is the young people in the media looking for new ways to disseminate the news,” says Meyn.
This citizen journalism also feeds the local appetite for gory, crime-related news and gossip – issues the Khmer media focus on. “The Khmer press are writing for their audience,” says Prak.
“A lot of Cambodians don’t want to read about economics or politics because it may be hard to understand or they don’t see how it impacts them; they want to read about crime or look at road traffic accidents. That is the demand from the local market.”
With the commune elections set for next year, ahead of the general elections of July 2018, the media frenzy in Cambodia is set to mount from 2017 as international interest peaks. And as the younger population’s interest in their country and decision-making grows, the media has a vital and responsible role to play.
“Independent media is really important,” says Crothers. “A transparent, open and free media is one of the major pillars of society. Readers deserve to be able to access that resource and trust what they are getting has the proper due diligence.”