The end of The Cambodia Daily: A Strongman Can Shut a Newspaper but Can’t Shut Up a Reporter

By Susannah Luthi

The last issue of the Cambodia Daily — “News Without Fear or Favor” — appeared September 4 with the headline: “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship” and a photograph of government opposition leader Kem Sokha in handcuffs and the grip of a policeman. Kem Sokha looks disgusted. The newspaper sold rapidly, people massed to get their copies all over the streets of Phnom Penh. And then there were none. Kem Sokha is locked up in a high security prison in an eastern province of the country.

The Daily’s shuttering came one month after Cambodia’s tax department leaked that the paper owed $6.3 million in back taxes and would have to pay up. The paper had been threatened before; Cambodia is still run by its long-time strongman Hun Sen, and the Daily has never been anything if not unflinching when it comes to covering his regime. One Khmer journalist, who still reports in Phnom Penh even though he hadn’t been at the Daily in a few years and has asked to remain anonymous, sent me tempered but optimistic messages shortly before the closure: that he half-thought Hun Sen would declare the paper safe, and make himself a hero by doing so. Elections are less than a year away, the journalist said: Hun Sen could very well lose, he needs to make sure he doesn’t, this is a ploy but it will end up all right.

That was the feeling at first, in early August. A few weeks later the newspaper was on the brink of closure and the reporter sent me another message: “In Cambodia, crackdown is in full swing before next election.”

“A lot of worries among media community, who’s next?” he added when I asked him if he felt safe. “We don’t know. Many people especially poor Khmers are now unemployed. This is so bad. Things happened too quickly.”

The final two weeks of the independent newspaper that was founded in 1993 just after the country opened up following years of intense isolation, war, and genocide played out as a farce. A Capitol Hill reporter-colleague who worked at the paper when I interned there in 2006 swapped snatches of news with me; he passed along what everyone was saying on Facebook. For a brief time it appeared the newspaper’s owner, Deborah Krisher-Steele, daughter of the founder Bernie Krisher, was poised to negotiate with the government. As the Daily’s last editor-in-chief Jodie DeJonge said, the publishers thought they could open the books for an audit at least.

“However, within two weeks, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared the Daily was the ‘chief thief’ and that it should pay the 25 billion riel tax bill or ‘pack up and go,’” DeJonge said.

It was clear, Khmer journalists have told me, that Hun Sen wanted capitulation. And if he wasn’t going to get it, the tax department was there to clear his way.

So the historical paper is shut, and if its terms of survival were going to depend on capitulation, maybe the closure is for the best, says a Khmer journalist who was with the Daily from its very first year of publication, 1993, up to 2008. He lives in the United States now. I’m going to call him Neak Kaset, “journalist” in Khmer because he needs to stay anonymous.

“If the Daily had played [Hun Sen’s] game, he would have come out the hero of democracy,” Neak Kaset said. “The journalists aren’t in danger, Hun Sen is just worried about playing chess: just win the game, it doesn’t matter how many pawns you have. Just win the game, that’s all.”

The Cambodia Daily and all the reporters would have become the strongman’s pawns, he said.

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Radio Free Asia has also just had to close its nearly 20-year-old Phnom Penh bureau due to the government “pretext of tax and administrative violations,” according to the RFA statement.

Voice of America will likely be okay, but more than 12 independent radio stations that used to broadcast VOA and Radio Free Asia have been shut. The Phnom Penh Post, founded as a weekly in 1992 and later a competitive daily, still runs as the paper of record, and Neak Kaset says he believes it will be allowed to continue because it is “more about business.” The Daily was “more about democracy and human rights.”

“The standard of the Daily is different,” he said.

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“It’s no fun to work as a journalist,” the Daily’s last news editor Chhorn Chansy writes in the paper’s final issue. “We just want to share the information, the real issue, to our society. If you’re talking about becoming a journalist because it’s fun, it’s not fun, but we want to share, to bring information to the world.”

“There was once that crazy, crusading paper in Cambodia where we put it all on the line, where we were all so truly alive,” said Bloomberg reporter Erik Wasson, an American alumnus of the Daily at the Washington wake for the newspaper. “The Daily more than any other place I have worked embodied the idea that journalists should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And that is what I mourn: all the stories that will not be told now.”

“The Daily is in my heart, it’s part of my life,” a Khmer taxi driver said, one week after the paper shut down. He just happened to pick me up in Arlington, Virginia. He had the Cambodian flag hanging from his rearview mirror, like I’ve had in my car since my short-long three months at the paper in 2006. That’s how we started talking. “It will rise again,” he said.

The Daily taught him English like it taught many Khmers. Even the last issue had its English section, with vocabulary and side-by-side story translations. That was another thing about the newspaper. It also trained every Khmer journalist I’ve spoken to: they wanted to be a reporter from the time they read the Daily.

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Friday night after the last Daily, the paper’s former executive editor Douglas Gillison organized a wake in Washington. We met in a warehouse distillery and started drinking bourbon and emotions flowed hard. You could see what the Daily did for American journalism right there: reporters from the Atlantic, Bloomberg, Politico.

“You don’t know what you did,” Elizabeth Becker said to the alumni, American and Khmer, who came together to mourn that night. Elizabeth Becker, maybe the west’s most famous chronicler of Cambodia, was there too. She wrote When the War Was Over, the definitive history of the Khmer Rouge. She covered the country for 20 years. A few years ago she released the Romeo and Juliet story of the Khmer Rouge era, the tragedy of Bophana, through the Daily’s publishing arm. Today she continues to donate her photos for the archives of Bophana Center in Phnom Penh: the history of Cambodia for Cambodians. Records, history, journalism are so vital for people, and Cambodians for so long were kept in the dark.

Becker says the intensity of the country’s isolation from the early 1970s, when she started reporting there, through the Khmer Rouge when Pol Pot turned the lights off on Cambodia, into the years following the Vietnamese liberation when the international community banned aid of any kind from the country, when Cambodians would have to trek to border refugee camps to get any help, can’t be overstated.

Then there were the UN-sponsored elections and Hun Sen lost. He was already in charge, he’d entered the country backed by Vietnamese to end the regime of the Khmer Rouge of which he’d once been a member, and he refused to give up power. After talks, he became second prime minister while Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the royal family, became titular head.

“Everyone wanted to go to Cambodia to do something,” Becker said. It seemed like a new beginning for a country that had been dragged through war and “bombed to smithereens” even before Pol Pot’s genocide that claimed an estimated 2 million lives. Then it was a neglected pawn in the territorial fight between the U.S. and the USSR.

This is the country where Bernie Krisher, an Asia correspondent for Newsweek, wanted to make a newspaper that was on the level of the New York Times.

“He not only gave them a paper of record at a time when, historically, Cambodia needed it, but historians are going to be totally dependent on the Cambodia Daily,” Becker said. “It became important for Cambodia to know what journalism is and the role of journalism in government and a developing democracy.”

The Daily led to a “cadre of reporters” who learned their trade from growing up with the newspaper. There is not, Becker said, another newspaper like it.

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“At the beginning,” Neak Kaset told me, “we were very proud of being journalists and Cambodians respected us. That changed with the pro-government [shift]. Before, they respected journalists, but they don’t respect anymore.”

At least, he amended, that’s the case for the mainstream: not for the other left-behind people.

“For the poor, the voiceless, they do respect journalists, and they have more pity than before,” he said. “Before we were respected, but even more they have pity for us. They didn’t feel sorry for us because we had a good job. Now they see we have a lot of problems.”

Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh looks like the face of global economics working, at least on the surface: high rises, five-star restaurants and hotels; cars packing the streets that when I was there in 2006 were quiet, with mostly tuk-tuks and motos, hardly any of the big black SUVs that crowd them now.

But the more foreign money pours in to fuel this growth, the poorer and more desperate the forgotten people become. Cambodia’s primeval forests are being systematically destroyed: the higher the economic output, the more devastating the long-term future of the country appears. When I visited last year, one local said 40 percent of the forests had been cut down in eight years. I don’t know if that is true, but it sure looked that way. And according to Forest Trends — which references stories from the Daily and Phnom Penh Post — 80 percent of land given by the government to corporations are within the boundaries of protected forests. I went up to Mondulkiri province in the north and it looked like the Lord of the Rings films — the part where Sauron is slaughtering the trees. Indigenous villagers who lived quietly in these forests are losing their homes: that’s both a human and fiscal cost.

“We always tried our best to get the news out, there’s more gap between rich and the poor, and there are more poor — more people are poor, and a few people are more rich,” Neak Kaset said.

One Khmer reporter said a logging tycoon didn’t like the Daily covering what he was doing and asked the government to intervene. Another rumor, but probably not entirely untrue.

Logging, land-grabs, conditions of the garment-workers, the kids who are trafficked for sex, the heroin trade: it’s unfair and destructive and evil. The Daily turned its eye on these things, Neak Kaset said, and “the world can see Cambodia.” Foreigners, Chinese and Western, profit from Cambodia, so I would argue the paper also is a mirror for them. I wonder if this is why its closure has hit me and other barangs so hard. I was there only for three months in 2006 but it’s my Rosebud. For years I felt guilty leaving after such a short time but I left because I thought I had to, I was losing my grip on how the world was supposed to be, how it was supposed to be fair. I realized at the Daily wake a few weeks ago that the feelings of the other Americans there, most of whom had stayed on at the paper a few years at least — as opposed to my three months — were just as complicated and haunting. The stuff we saw in Cambodia was tough and raw. I thought as a 22-year-old that I was part of the problem, simply being there as a white person. Inside restaurants and clubs, you mostly saw foreign aid workers and business people and ex-pats: the Khmers were serving you. And outside, Khmer motodups waited to take you away; Khmer girls were there for the men. It felt like Cambodia didn’t belong to its own people.

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In the old days, Becker said, Western foreign correspondents depended on their collaborations with Cambodian journalists but the Cambodians never got a byline. There was an old rule that held, that local stringers wouldn’t know how to be objective, she said. The correspondents fought the rule for a long time. Now, no one remembers that was even a fight thanks to the Daily and Post.

And, more profound than that, you can argue that journalism — living history, where you call injustices out by their names — is the power by which Cambodians take back their own country.

As Becker says: “It doesn’t feel as bad as it used to feel.”

Neak Kaset was a teenager under the Khmer Rouge, just old enough to be separated from his parents because the regime wanted to make sure they owned the kids instead of their families. He can still describe the hunger, how people were so desperate they would eat any organic matter they could see. You learned what you could eat yourself by watching what happened to other people, he said. “If they die, you don’t eat that thing,” he said.

“You learn from hardship how to live with your bare hands: you see a frog go into a hole, and you plug the hole with grass, and when you come back the frog is dead and you can eat it.”

The Khmer Rouge used the people’s hunger to brainwash them, Neak Kaset said. The leaders of the work camps would say their hardship was just the first phase of development. Then food would be so abundant that everyone would be fat and they would have to go to a gym to work out; machines would feed the people, no one would actually have to feed himself. Food was used to brainwash kids to hate their parents enough to kill them: Their parents couldn’t feed them, it was Angkar who fed them and it was Angkar who loved them more than their parents did.

Did the leaders believe their own words? I asked him.

“They just believed it,” he said. “The Khmer Rouge was very good at brainwashing.”

That was the world then: hunger, death, kids killing their parents, genocide and mass paranoia. Just 20 years later, for the Cambodia Daily, Neak Kaset was calling out the power as Hun Sen consolidated his hold on the government. He reported how in 1997 Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party changed the election formula that had been set up to favor small parties so it would favor his own and win him the seats he needed to shore up his authority.

Isn’t that the only way things can change? The Daily is gone, but no one can put the power it gave to the people back into the bottle. Who knows what can happen?

My friend who continues to write in Cambodia wants one day to start a Khmer investigative paper now because it would be good for the country even if it is also “very dangerous.”

“I’ve realized,” he said, “that it’s always a dream to write freely, responsibly and something in debt to the Cambodian people so they would be fully aware about their country and government.”

On September 4 he sent me a photo of the Daily’s last front page. “Sold out. Everyone wanted one,” he said. “Let’s start a new one.”

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