University of Limerick lecturer and former Cambodia Daily journalist, Fergal Quinn, reflects on a worrying and largely unreported attack on freedom of expression in Cambodia and what lessons we in the west shoud take from what is happening.
“You have one channel, we have 39 channels. If you curse me, you will receive bad merit. Those who [previously] cursed me already disappeared from the world.”
THIS was Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s response to a fairly anodyne question at a press conference in 2008.
Just the usual sabre-rattling bluster by the Southeast Asian strongman at the time, but this week the threat became reality as one of the last bulwarks of the free press in Cambodia was wiped out for good.
‘All the news without fear or favour’, was the Cambodia Daily’s ambitious tagline in the 24 years since it spluttered into existence in a country still reeling from 30 years of civil war, genocide, and foreign occupation.
The newspaper was envisioned by its eccentric proprietor, former Newsweek correspondent turned philanthropist Bernie Krisher, as an outlet for independent and accurate news reporting, as well as an incubator for a new generation of journalists in a country which had little tradition of either.
From 1993 to this Tuesday, they never missed an issue. Even in July 1997, when factional fighting on the streets meant there was no way to get to the printers, an office Xerox copier was utilised and a few hundred copies were distributed.
All that time, The Daily set a standard for the rigour, quality and fearlessness of its journalism.
It had a relatively small print run, but a big reputation for breaking sensitive stories about topics like corruption, environmental issues and land rights.
It survived, prospered even, amid the almost weekly denouncements, threats and the other assorted slings and arrows that are thrown at independent voices in countries like Cambodia, where principles like free press and the rule of law are poorly established.
In the past the Cambodian regime has reached for the grenade and the AK47 to deal with troublesome individuals or organisations.
But this time it was literally death by taxes. From out of nowhere, a $6.3 million dollar tax bill was produced without audit or appeal process.
Given a few weeks to pay a sum which it could not possibly afford, a fatigued and demoralised management gave in.
I was fortunate enough to have worked at the Daily in the noughties under the brilliant editorship of Dubliner Kevin Doyle.
I happily dived into the peculiarly fecund atmosphere you get in a newsroom which combined ambitious, hungry but green young journalists from the US and Europe and a much more experienced local staff who were utterly convinced of their journalistic mission.
Those local staff good humouredly put up with the wannabe Michael Herrs or Sean Flynns in their midst, who wanted a taste of journalism on the edge.
They were glad of the help and the layer of protection that they believed foreigners afforded them as they poked and prodded at those in power.
The paper itself was defiantly odd at times, with its wilfully old-fashioned format and resistance to technological change.
The same theme emerged from conversations this week with Daily alumni, many of whom went onto careers with the likes of Reuters, The Associated Press and the New York Times.
A profoundly-felt well of respect for the Cambodian colleagues who did their job day in day out, with much greater chance of punishment than we did and much less chance of a significant reward.
Those Khmer reporters truly, madly, utterly believed that telling the truth and shining a light on corruption would inevitably change their corner of the world for the better.
For the westerners in particular, it distilled a sense that, whatever else you might be in the news business for, you were privileged to have the freedom to be able to do it at all.
So what finished the Daily in the end?
What upset the precarious balance of diplomacy and powerplay, and convinced Hun Sen that the risk of international community’s ire was worth the opportunity to mortally wound dissenters and consolidate the power he has held for 30 years now?
Even the best of politicians tend to only believe in free press up to the point that they themselves truly feel threatened by it.
In an election year in which a resurgent opposition are mounting a genuine challenge to the regime, Hun Sen finally reached for the pest spray.
The same weekend the Daily ran out of road, opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason.
In doing so, the always canny Hun Sen would have calculated that international opprobrium for his actions would have even less bite than usual.
As Western donors withdraw from Southeast Asia, China has stepped up with money for favours, but with no ‘free press and democracy’ strings attached.
In such a delicately poised moment, the bellicosity of US President Donald Trump was akin to an elephant jumping into a swimming pool.
Within weeks of Trump declaring his war on ‘fake news’ and hugely respected organisations like the BBC and the New York Times for reporting things he didn’t like, Hun Sen had followed suit, condemning in March human rights organisations and journalists as “anarchic groups”.
When the citadels of free expression come under siege, the outliers are easy pickings.
Which is why what is happening in Cambodia should be heeded by everyone who assumes that attacks on free expression in the west are just passing storms in teacups.
The Cambodia Daily was just one newspaper on the other side of the world, but it is also another canary in the mine.
A signifier of what can happen when those who are supposed to defend of concepts like freedom of speech, are either asleep at the wheel or wilfully and quite deliberately attack it.
Because freedom of expression is a delicate, and fragile thing.
When the outliers are gone, the centre comes under even more pressure.
And In an environment where all media organisations are tarred as compromised and biased, and journalists derided as mere ‘fake news’ peddlers, a few good puffs, and the whole house of cards can come down very quickly.
* Fergal Quinn is a lecturer in journalism in University of Limerick.
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