Cambodia Loses an Independent Press Voice

A staple of Cambodia's post-Khmer Rouge press may well have died this month after it carried a story on corruption and environmental destruction that veered too close to the country’s leaders, cutting seriously into the remaining independent journalistic voices in the country.

The already-ailing 12-year-old French and Khmer-language Cambodge Soir, which claimed to be the only independent daily paper for political and general news published in French in all of Asia, failed to appear on newsstands on Tuesday, June 12 and has not reappeared.

The day after the paper’s failure to appear, the 14-member Cambodian and French editorial staff said a political squabble with management had led to the summary dismissal of reporter Soren Seelow for publishing the article on an environmental report damning the government for corruption. After Seelow’s firing, the staff walked out in protest.

In a statement, the staff said that publisher Philippe Monnin had told them that their holding company, which technically employed the paper's 30-member staff, was bankrupt and would be shuttered for good. Internet access was discontinued and the paper's fledgling Web site was taken offline.

The offending article, written by Seelow on June 1, described a report by the London-based forestry NGO Global Witness. "It started with the article on the Global Witness report with a theme judged too critical toward the government," said Stéphanie Gée, Soir’s editor-in-chief. Gee says, however, that the staff do not believe Cambodian authorities placed any pressure on management to fire the reporter. Two Cambodian officials have also denied attempting to bring any pressure.

The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders alleged that Monnin was employed by France's overseas development agency as an advisor to Cambodia's Agriculture Ministry. In a statement, Reporters Without Borders said Monnin had told Seelow his article "would upset the authorities."

The journalistic watchdog protested the closure, calling on Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, a multilateral development organization created to promote the French language and one of Soir's principal financial backers, to intervene. OIF provides slightly less than half of Soir's operating budget and was committed to fund the paper until 2009, making bankruptcy seem improbable.

"Although your organization had just released new funds to support this newspaper, its management has decided to terminate this 12-year-old venture on the grounds of financial difficulties," Reporters Without Borders said. "We ask you to help prevent the disappearance of this exemplary French-language daily."

On Thursday, the International Federation of Journalists also issued a statement in Brussels saying that “the IFJ gives our full support to the staff of Cambodge Soir and urges management to halt liquidation to ensure Cambodia does not lose a vital voice in the French Language media,” said Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park.

A request for comment from OIF Secretary-General Abdou Diouf has not been answered.

Monnin, who has declined all comment, was asked when the strike began why the staff was angry. "They don't have the same way of perceiving the development of the country."

The Global Witness report, Cambodia’s Family Trees, was scathing its indictment of how “a syndicate comprising relatives of Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior officials has looted the country’s forests.” The report accused a "kleptocratic elite" within Cambodia of wholesale environmental plunder and venality. Cambodian authorities responded by banning the report and confiscating copies. Following the banning, information minister Khieu Kanharith ordered a probe into the report’s findings, because, he said, the report had destroyed Cambodia's international reputation.

The announced confiscation of the edition appears to have been symbolic since it is on the Internet as well. The Information Ministry has ordered newspaper not to reprint or serialize the report, with Sralanh Khmer, a pro-Sam Rainsy paper, did for a week straight.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's elder brother, Kompong Cham Province Governor Hun Neng, whose son and wife are both accused of various crimes by Global Witness, issued a warning: "If [Global Witness] come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken," he said.

A Cambodian journalist following up allegations in the report for Radio Free Asia received death threats and has fled Cambodia for Thailand, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Lim Pisith received the threats on his mobile phone, and late last week crossed into Thailand seeking refuge.

An anonymous caller told Lem "to beware," and warned that he "could be killed" for his radio reports on alleged illegal logging activities, Lim Pisith CPJ. "I didn't want to leave my country and stop my reporting, but my life was in danger."

Gée said Soir decided to give the government more column inches by devoting subsequent articles to official responses. On June 4 the paper printed lengthy denials from Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun, whom the report accuses of auctioning off posts in his ministry posts to the tune of $2.5 million in bribes.

Six days later, Monnin nevertheless told Seelow, who had planned to leave Cambodia in September, that he was fired, according to the paper's staff. Contacted by telephone, Seelow declined to comment.

Meanwhile many of the 3,500 French residents in Cambodia appear to have lost hope that Soir will ever live again and have resigned themselves to struggling bleary-eyed through the English print media every morning.

"The decision to shut the newspaper Cambodge Soir is infused with a certain brutality and was definitely a mistake," a Franco-Cambodian reader wrote in a group email protesting the closure. "And as always the decision was taken without the least consideration for the Cambodian journalists and readers."

Despite France’s former prominence in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as the colonial occupier, Asia has the smallest share of French speakers of any continent. In part due to the murderous ways of the Khmer Rouge, who outlawed the language, French is even less prevalent in Cambodia than in Vietnam, where the prestigious Paris daily Le Monde lamented last year that the language "is collapsing."

But Soir's language is not the immediate concern. In a country where nearly all Khmer-language media are aligned with either Prime Minister Hun Sen or other powerful individuals, a newspaper willing to face facts is particularly conspicuous for its absence. The two English-language papers in Phnom Penh, the Cambodia Daily and the bi-weekly Phnom Penh Post, are now virtually the only independent print media in the country.

Soir’s staff have continued to gather every day in the newsroom, according to Gee, who said in her statement that a “climate of trust” needs to be rebuilt if Soir is to have any hope of gaining the support of its former staff. She and the staff have called for a dialogue with management and the reinstatement of their fired colleague plus written rules on employment and termination.

"We're left waiting again," she said. "The ball is in their court."