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‘Going Down In a Blaze of Glory.’ The Brief, Crusading Life of the Cambodia Daily

13 minute read
Gillison produced 1,345 bylines and 97 contributing credits for The Cambodia Daily between 2006 and 2011, and served as executive editor beginning in 2009.

Phann Ana represents the best of everything the Cambodia Daily stood for.

In 17 years at the newspaper — which Cambodia’s strongman prime minister cruelly snuffed out in early September — Ana championed poor villagers persecuted by the country’s acquisitive oligarchy, investigated political murders, and exposed illegal logging and grand corruption, again and again and again.

He worked his keyboard with a malicious grin and his sources with an unmistakable soprano chortle. He seemed able to retrieve internal documents from government ministries as easily as if they came from his own desk drawer.

“I love embezzlement stories,” he said in a recent phone call from Phnom Penh. “I love them.”

Ana once published the contents of a recorded telephone call in which a disgraced prosecutor demanded $6,000 from a fugitive army captain in return for helping to clear him of a murder in which he allegedly burned a man to death over a petty dispute in the illegal wildlife trade.

Ana delved into arcane land disputes only to reveal they were tied to the deeply embarrassing conduct of associates and family members of Prime Minister Hun Sen and other powerful figures.

He reported on the shocking 2009 triple murder of the family of the director of Cambodia’s judicial academy, and revealed that police believed a former government official to be the culprit.

“One thing I enjoyed very much was the investigative stories about the World Bank-funded projects that led to the arrest of a senior official at the Ministry of Rural of Development for pocketing $100,000,” he said.

Dauntless Kuch Naren, a 15-year Daily veteran, doggedly pursued the case of Keat Kolney, the finance minister’s sister and wife of a senior land management official, who allegedly defrauded poor hill-tribe villagers out of 450 hectares so she could enrich herself with a rubber plantation.

But Naren was proudest of seeing her reporting lead to legal reforms after she exposed the human trafficking of Cambodian brides into slavery and violent, captive marriages in China and South Korea.

“They finally released new legislation to protect those women,” she told me.

The dispute between the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and The Cambodia Daily appeared on an August front page, in Phnom Penh on Sept. 1, 2017.
The dispute between the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and The Cambodia Daily appeared on an August front page, in Phnom Penh on Sept. 1, 2017.Omar Havana—The New York Times/Redux

‘Pack up and go’

Naren, Ana, and my other dear friends and immensely skilled colleagues at the Daily poured their lives into proving that daily public interest and accountability journalism was very much possible in the once-broken land that gave the world Pol Pot.

They did so for 24 years without interruption and of that they can forever be proud.

But, running scared from his own immediate future, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister of 32 years, killed the newspaper. With general elections 11 months away, the Daily had somehow become an unacceptable threat to his pursuit of a fourth, even a fifth, decade in power.

Last month, a government revenue office accused the struggling non-profit of tax evasion, demanding payment of the invented sum of $6.3 million in arrears, while refusing to allow any appeals, protests or arbitration.

Hun Sen called the paper a “thief,” telling it to pay or “pack up and go.” He might have expected more of a fight but the Daily instead revealed how few assets it actually had to tax.

Unable to sell subscriptions or advertising due to the threat of a shutdown, it ceased to operate for lack of funds on Sept. 4, the day the bill was to come due.

Killing the paper in this way destroyed a future for immensely talented Cambodian and expatriate reporters, who were all thrust suddenly into unemployment.

It also ended the uproarious, profane, exhilarating life of our tropical newsroom and the turbulent chronicles it produced — a thrill like nothing most of us had ever known.

The immense drama of our daily work happened for most of its life without a website, printed on A4 pages in a small corner of the world mostly overlooked by larger news outlets. But dramatic events crossed our pages on any given day.

There was Kaing Guek Eav, the head of Pol Pot’s secret police — accused of overseeing the torture and systematic execution of about 14,000 fellow Cambodians — who rose to his feet in court in 2009 and, with victims and witnesses fainting in distress, commanded his former subordinate, once the chief interrogator of Tuol Sleng prison, to give more candid testimony.

“Please don’t be afraid you’ll die. Just tell the truth,” wagging his finger, one mass murderer to another.

Or the senior female military officer, who fled to Thailand after being charged with orchestrating an acid attack on the family, but nonetheless called our newsroom while on the lam to give her side of the story to a trusted reporter.

How about the Phnom Penh police chief, who likewise fled the country, claiming he had evidence to bring down the government? He touched off an international manhunt before being captured in Kuala Lumpur by his archrival in the police and delivered to Phnom Penh, where he is now serving a 100-year prison term on a laundry list of convictions for gangsterism.

Some events — like the time a British pedophile stumbled into our offices one evening, angered by our reporting, and warned he might strap a grenade to his genitals and blow us all to smithereens — didn’t make it into the paper.

For those of us who moved on, the fact the paper still appeared every day was a connection to the most important moments of our lives and that is now gone forever.

We were not a “training ground,” as some earnest news coverage has described the Daily in covering its final crisis. Our writers were not budding talent or fledgling or cub reporters. They were world beaters.

For a quick reference, just ask the many international journalists who began to question their own reporting on the sometime anti-trafficking advocate Somaly Mam. Her purported life story story fell apart after the Daily began scratching its surface in 2012. (Before the exposés, Mam, a celebrity favorite, was lionized as a TIME 100 figure by Angelina Jolie.)

Even though I was 14,000 kilometers from my home in New York, I kept a portrait on the wall of the famed muckraking reporter Jack Newfield of the Village Voice — a paper which sent a stream of interns to become Daily reporters over the years, and which was the spiritual source of so much of what we did.

Above my computer screen, I taped a passage from Newfield’s memoirs, in which he described his pugilistic approach to journalism — what he called the “Joe Frazier method,” in an homage to the heavyweight champion.

“Pick an issue. Study it. Figure out who the decision makers you want to influence are,” he wrote. “Name the guilty men.”

“Keep coming forward. Be relentless. Don’t stop moving your hands. Break the other guy’s will.”

In the six years I toiled at the Daily, I hoped each morning to live by his words.

I obtained the declassification of 1,000 or so pages of FBI records, which showed the Bureau had killed its own investigation into a 1997 political massacre in Phnom Penh after developing considerable evidence implicating forces loyal to Hun Sen — and finding it too hot to handle.

I revealed that a publicly traded Australian mining company had paid nearly $1 million to the family members of government regulators as it closed a deal on a gold mine — sparking a criminal bribery probe by the Australian Federal Police which was still active as of April this year.

I exposed an internal United Nations inquiry into a kickback scheme at the Khmer Rouge trials, in which whistleblowers accused a senior Cambodian official of using the occasion as a means to enrich himself.

It’s some comfort to know that, before he died in January of this year, the investigative reporter Wayne Barrett — my rabbi in journalism, who first inducted me into the world of being a newspaper man, and Jack Newfield’s long-time reporting partner — knew full well that I was putting what he taught me into practice so far from home.

Late nights, when I needed advice, I’d call him from a Monivong Boulevard Internet café and get the loving advice and the occasional tongue-lashing I deserved. He knew I kept Jack’s picture on the wall. And he knew that far off in Asia, the Daily was an echo of universal truths he had long enumerated in Gotham.

What held true in covering influence peddlers, mafia-tied teamsters and corrupt developers in Brooklyn was likewise true in chronicling the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the rise a venal new society from the ashes of war.

“Your old paper is going down in a blaze of glory,” the renowned former Village Voice investigative reporter Tom Robbins, perhaps Barrett’s closest friend, told me.

“Far better to know you’re being shut down by a repressive government than shuttered by hedge fund investors who have no interest other than the revenue.”

Jodie DeJonge, center, the editor in chief of The Cambodia Daily, meets with staff members in Phnom Penh on Aug. 31, 2017.
Jodie DeJonge, center, the editor in chief of The Cambodia Daily, meets with staff members in Phnom Penh on Aug. 31, 2017.Omar Havana—The New York Times/Redux

‘Descent into outright dictatorship’

Now that the Daily is gone, there is an immense hole in Cambodia’s civic life.

Who will investigate the next assassination, piecing out why the official version makes no sense? Who will expose embezzlement and reveal the theft of aid money?

Who will expose corruption and political interference in the Khmer Rouge trials, which after a decade have delivered only three verdicts in the deaths of perhaps two million people?

The week after Cambodia celebrates its 64th year of independence from France this November, Hun Sen will quietly mark his 12,000th day as premier. But the fact that his career is so long has never been reason for anyone to presume it will continue tomorrow.

Early in his political life, Cambodia’s survival, and indeed Hun Sen’s own, once depended on ending the country’s political isolation and regaining the West’s favor.

As a 30-year-old foreign minister in 1983, he once fretted during a Cabinet meeting that “foreign newspapers, especially Western newspapers” might judge Cambodia harshly if it adopted a new penal code that didn’t sufficiently respect the presumption of innocence for criminal defendants.

The Daily printed its first issue in 1993, as Cambodia moved toward multi-party democracy under U.N.-administered elections. Billions in foreign aid helped stabilize Phnom Penh’s budget, finance its reconstruction and development and infuse cash into an anemic economy.

But now Hun Sen neither needs, nor can he afford, the post-war political arrangement of openness that he once grudgingly accepted.

At 65, he finds himself at the helm of a country where the median age is 24 — meaning the typical voter was born about the time the Daily began printing.

But in that 24-year-old voter’s lifetime, the immediate pressure on Hun Sen to placate Western government has also waned. Since 1993, the Cambodian economy has grown nearly 700 percent, and China has become Phnom Penh’s largest source of foreign aid, obviating much of the need to heed U.S. and European concerns about the rule of law and human rights protection.

Hun Sen thus finds himself with a freer hand to clamp down on critics just as the ground changes beneath his feet.

New generations of voters are less likely to be won over by the shopworn campaign slogans of his folkloric rise to power — his triumphs over the Khmer Rouge in the 1979, his negotiation of their surrender in the 1990s — that evoke what are at best fading memories for many if not most.

Meanwhile, the same changing economics that have upended the news media in the rest of the world make it increasingly costly for Cambodia’s ruling party to be the dominant voice.

The government predicts smart phone internet usage will double to 65 percent in three years. Papers and television stations owned by loyalists are facing the same disruptions and broadened online competition as elsewhere.

Hun Sen, who once boasted of overwhelming print and broadcast media dominance — “You have one station. I have 10 stations,” he taunted the opposition in 2008 — was found last year to be using Indian and Filipino click farms to buy millions of “likes” for his Facebook page.

At the same time, Hun Sen has never willingly accepted defeat at the ballot box, having kept his 30-year grip on power through a mix of intimidation, the adept use of patronage, and manipulation of the courts to harass his rivals.

In May of this year, he warned he would be ready to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent his own defeat and said Cambodia could return to civil conflict unless he won next year’s vote.

This month, he mooted the possibility of dissolving Cambodia’s largest, most popular opposition party. On Sept. 3, its leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested and thrown in a prison near the Vietnamese border.

The news of Sokha’s arrest made the final front page of the Daily under the headline, “Descent into Outright Dictatorship.”

Unwelcome news

Hun Sen clearly does not take his own victory for granted. Between the 2008 and 2013 general elections, a united opposition nearly doubled their seats in the National Assembly while the ruling CPP saw a ten-point drop in its vote tally, and faced unprecedented anti-government demonstrations — whence the need to crush the current ecosystem of independent media and throttle the political opposition.

Hun Sen has forced off the air at least 15 independent radio stations, many of which carried relays from the U.S.-funded broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, silencing their voices as a result.

The reasons for his particular anger at the Daily are open to interpretation. Hun Sen has probably long been infuriated by the paper, which also symbolized the era he now wants to bring to a close and was the most practiced at discovering and printing unwelcome news.

Destroying it in this way also sends a clear message to anyone who might contemplate crossing one of Hun Sen’s red lines that this is the fate that awaits them.

Friends of the Daily urged donors to press the Cambodian government to spare its life. The U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights called on Phnom Penh to respect due process under tax laws.

But if the Daily survived because of outside pressure, then it would have served at Hun Sen’s pleasure, undermining its very reason to exist.

If Cambodia is to have an open society, then Cambodians themselves must make it. Perhaps one day soon, the pendulum will swing back and they will try again as they did in 1993.

The legacy the Daily leaves will be an invaluable guide when that time comes.

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