IN CAMBODIA, 'PEONS' KEEP FREE PRESS ALIVE
[PNS] EDITOR'S NOTE: From a distance, Cambodia seems all confusion and tragedy. But a group of young reporters eagerly give reason for hope -- and, now, for concern. PNS commentator Eric Pape recently returned from a two-year stint working at two English language papers in Cambodia.
BY ERIC PAPE, PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
In a move that could mark an end to Cambodia's newborn free press, the Hun Sen government is threatening to close down two of the nation's few independent newspapers.
Such a move would have far reaching effects. While the two publications -- the English-language Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post -- provide key information to the local and international community, by far their most important function is to show Cambodians how to report truthfully. As most of the country's "independent" journalists were killed or forced to flee the Khmer Rouge reign of the late 1970s, this is a crucial task.
Cambodia's foreign-language papers -- unlike the local opposition press -- have generally escaped government harassment, partly because they are protected by foreign embassies which need reliable information. But that protection may not stand up to the planned crackdown, which reflects the government's determination to keep its skeletons from affecting the massive foreign assistance it needs.
In the process, the government may also place a rope around the neck of local reporters.
The pro-government press has repeated official pronouncements accusing the two independent papers of lacking professionalism and fairness. In fact, absolute political neutrality is a reporter's best defense in Cambodia's constantly shifting terrain, and no one is more aware of this than reporters for these two papers. They are careful to give a source, whenever possible, for every quote, comment and allegation, and always make it clear when they are just passing along other people's words. Almost all are in their 20s or early 30s, and have only a few years experience.
Lor Chandra, my colleague at the Cambodian Daily, went so far as to say he might not vote because "journalists are supposed to be neutral." This seems naive, but the choice is understandable. In the long run, he may have little more than his wits to protect him.
When I arrived in Cambodia, I was assigned to work with this young (then 25) but seasoned reporter on a piece focused on the return of the last Cambodian "boat people" from refugee camps in Indonesia.
While stories about a rift among the Khmer Rouge grabbed headlines, LC showed me the importance of the "smaller" stories, the ones with a direct impact on people's lives. For example, the "boat people" were being forced back into the hands of people they saw as their enemies -- a situation familiar to the many Cambodians who have spent the better part of a generation being ruled by former nemeses.
LC probably doesn't know it but he and those "smaller stories" convinced me to stay at the newspaper. He and others taught countless other things as well. For example, when we met with top government officials -- men thought to be former members of death squads -- the Cambodian reporters made it clear that I, the "prestigious foreign journalist" was asking all the troubling questions and they were simple "translators."
On the phone with arrogant ministers who rarely had time for lowly Cambodian reporters, LC put on his ingratiating "I am a peon, you are so important" voice. In this way he obtained answers about prison breaks, illegal logging or other officially-sanctioned swindling from people trained in secrecy.
LC wasn't alone. Others reporters, each with a distinctive style, talked to vendors at the central market about the falling value of currency and the rising cost of rice. Some visited the dump, where children scavenge for food and clothing. Others talked their way into grim prisons where as many as 25 men shared a cell.
The fruits of their efforts show in the paper, which includes a portion translated into Khmer. When reporter Saing Soenthrith and I motorcycled out to squatter settlements, he was treated like a hero, one with the power to break silence.
The situation was much the same at the bi-monthly Phnom Penh Post, where a former office assistant named Bou Saroeun, 32, has blossomed into one of Cambodia's most intrepid reporters. Bou Saroeun has written articles exposing deception by politicians of all stripes, not just against the government.
He has braved minefields to unearth information about the death of Pol Pot and obtained notes taken during Khmer Rouge leadership meetings. He has also spent time helping unearth proof that Hun Sen loyalists were minimizing casualties suffered during a useless assault on an opposition stronghold.
The Hun Sen government does not appreciate this kind of reporting -- and periodically makes its ire known. One colleague has repeatedly been warned "not to work so hard with the foreigners." In Cambodia, where at least five journalists have been murdered and 20 injured in recent years, such warnings are taken seriously.
A press crackdown would merely put expatriates working in Cambodia onto the job market -- with a resume highlighting the repression of their previous employer -- but it would trap the new generation of Cambodian reporters in a country where those in power have little respect for peons without patrons.
As much of the international community pays lip service to prosecuting those responsible for the Khmer Rouge genocide, the least they could do is offer protection to those who record the abuses of a new generation. It can be done -- last year, when Cambodia's Information Ministry threatened to expel a Canadian CNBC television correspondent international pressure forced them to back off.
Hopefully, a similar message will be communicated and the young "eyes and ears" of the Cambodian free press, those who have shown the power to break silence, will not be forgotten.
(c) COPYRIGHT PNS
Vittachi's letter in response:
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
In reply to "In Cambodia, 'Peons' Keep Free Press Alive", Jinn Magazine, 2 December 1998
Who is Eric Pape trying to fool? His commentary on the struggle of what he calls "Cambodia's newborn free press" is dishonest, deceptive, and nauseating in its righteousness. He somehow leaves out a crucial fact: there are no truly independent Cambodian newspapers.
The foreign-language newspapers that Pape highlights as beacons of the free press in Cambodia, The Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post, are owned by Americans and almost entirely managed by Westerners. In fact, Cambodian journalists - whose stories of bravery and grit shown under frightening conditions, which, to his credit, Pape accurately relates - have no real say or power over the running of these papers. At these mouthpieces of democracy in the new Cambodia, local reporters have surrendered their journalistic independence to the foreign custodians and propagandists of press freedoms there, Eric Pape and his like.
Speaking as a reporter of Asian extraction who spent nearly two years in Cambodia, I saw this insidious new imperialism at play, during stints at both The Daily and The Post. It was especially stark at The Daily, where a top- tier group of brash, rich, Ivy League-schooled young Americans - a new generation of Quiet Americans - lorded over Lor Chandara and his Cambodian colleagues.
Greenhorns with few or no previous credentials, they were sent, ironically, to train "L.C." and the others as exponents of a free press in Cambodia. They paid the Cambodians a pittance, but treated them like indentured laborers. The Cambodian staffers, who were often the victims of verbal lashings and other abuse from their American bosses, never held or graduated to editorial management positions.
"Peons" is the word, all right. Their so-called Western colleagues, in contrast, earned much bigger salaries, while managing to do much of their reporting on Cambodia from the atop the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Phnom Penh. I doubt that anything has changed since I left this scene in May 1997.
Pape's response to Vittachi:
Los Angeles, 13 December 1998
In writing a commentary about the dangers that a closure of Cambodia's foreign-language press would pose to the Cambodian who work in it, the aim was to highlight the risks to my former colleagues.
The many cultural and work-related issues that the existence of foreign-owned publications in Cambodia raise or the publications' managerial limitations -- in an environment fraught with delicate cultural, historical and economic issues -- are certainly worthy of discussion.
Like Mr. Vitachi, I too saw treatment of Cambodians (and the multiethnic expatriate staff) upon my arrival at the Cambodia Daily, which disgusted me. Editorial decisions that foreign lives were more important than those of Cambodians, as well as lower salaries and a glass ceiling for locals struck me as abhorrent. These and other issues made me doubt my own willingness to remain at the Cambodia Daily until my satisfaction over working with people like Lor Chandara, Saing Soenthrith and the response to our better results convinced me that meaningful work was getting done. Chandara and Soenthrith showed me their profound commitment to giving the stories that could have an impact on people, their total dedication. They also made it clear that each person arriving at the paper had an opportunity to develop their own relationships with the rest of the staff and their work, quite apart from management's troubling style and decision-making. Some took advantage of that and some did not.
It is certainly ironic that both English-language publications are owned by Americans, which might suggest a lingering hand of colonialism to some. There is certainly an argument to be made that, as both publications were originally intended to inform the huge United Nations presence that arrived in Cambodia in the early 1990s to administer the Paris Peace Accords, they were part of a new colonial presence in Cambodia. But given that none of Cambodia's main factions would have survived the previous years without their foreign patrons, the publications might also be looked upon as organs for communication to facilitate an attempt at collective problem-solving (whether it worked is another matter).
More importantly, the publications - like most everything else in Cambodia - morphed into something different. While they continue to inform humanitarian, diplomatic, and Cambodian political circles, their primary role is to open up a space for dialogue and sometimes, criticism, where there was little before.
The Americans are not the only ones to have engaged in the news market. Malaysian, French and Chinese-backed publications also sprang up in Phnom Penh.
Each publication has helped fill a part of the hole in civic society left by the Khmer Rouge. Because outside of the Cambodian reporters working in the foreign press, few have been schooled in basic journalistic ethics, independence and the ability to withstand intense government pressure. Fewer had any voice at all. That is why it is not a question of the local reporters at the English and French-language publications surrendering their "journalistic independence to the foreign custodians and propagandists of press freedoms" because the sorry fact is that they had no outlet, and little training or money for their journalistic endeavors before.
I also wanted to clarify a few specific issues Mr. Vitachi brought up. The two publications' owners decide upon their employees salaries, as anyone who has worked there would know, not people in management. Also, salary discrepancies have diminished at both publications since he left each paper. And, at the Cambodia Daily a Cambodian has been elevated to an editorial management position, while another was brought in to the decision-making process on some key editorial issues. Not enough, but positive steps nonetheless. Management style also changed, mostly for the better, and while some "Quiet Americanism" surely still exists, the worst of it left with the departure of some of the Ivy League "greenhorns" who ran the Cambodia Daily when Mr. Vitachi was there.
On another issue Mr. Vitachi raises, of course, there are no truly independent Cambodian newspapers, that is part of the point of the article. That Cambodia's murky political world does not allow for truly independent Cambodian publications, leaving foreign-owned English and French-language papers to attempt to fill the gap. It is certainly not the best of all possible worlds, but it is reality.
The foreign-language press clearly lacks an understanding of Cambodia's complex and rich cultural history and intricate political culture. Far worse, some expatriate journalists are more interested in securing nice resumes more than they are in reminding Cambodian officials and international diplomats that politics, governing and international aid should be about improving people's lives, not supporting political factions.
But despite the shortcomings at both the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post - in terms of remuneration, management, cultural sensitivity and perhaps long-term vision - the fact that they exist as a domain for ideas the government might not otherwise tolerate and as a training ground for Cambodians, remains significant.
Efforts to further integrate both publications so more Cambodians might use their judgment in producing a better more culturally sensitive newspaper are to be applauded, as are any attempts to convince the papers' owners - who say they run their publications at no profit - to boost Cambodian salaries.
Given the dearth of reliable Khmer-language publications - most are either subordinate to those who wield real power or are amateurish opposition papers regularly persecuted by the government - any and all improvements to the present situation might serve Cambodia well.
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