Tuesday, June 25, 2013
I was recently exploring the back roads of Kampot province, rice paddies, more rice paddies and the occasional little hamlet, bumping down narrow dirt roads in my beat up old Camry. Great car for rural Cambodia, but she was suffering that day. The engine was getting ready to give up the ghost 20km out in the backcountry, overheating and burning off water. Trying to get back to the main road I had to stop every couple of kilometers to refill the radiator. Midday, temp gauge topping out again, I pulled off in a village at a thatch shack full of Khmer countryguys sipping tea and coffee and watching the community TV. A no-English situation. I asked for water for the car. One guy motioned to a cistern beside the shack and handed me a scooper. "Thank you very much." But the engine was too hot and needed a few minutes to cool. I pulled up a chair, ordered a black coffee and settled in.
The guys gave me a curious glance now and again, and finally one brave soul started asking me questions (in Khmer) - the usual - what's you name, how old are you, are you married, and finally, what are you doing here? I answered in Khmer, and they understood most of what I said, but when I tried explaining that I was out there writing a piece for a travel magazine, they just didn't seem to get it. Probably my fault. I was struggling with the word for 'magazine.' Frustration building and trying to simplify things, I switched to 'newspaper,' an easy and common word. "Ahhh, cassette, cassette, ko'ot traukah cassette" ('he works for a newspaper') one guy said, and everybody seemed satisfied and went back to watching TV.
Figuring the engine was now cool enough to take water, I fetched a scoop full from the cistern and went to remove the radiator cap, but it was too hot to touch. I rummaged in my car for a rag, found an old copy of the Phnom Penh Post and used it as hand protection to remove the radiator cap. Noticing what I was doing, one of the TV watchers announced "He works for the Phnom Penh Post!" This drew everybody's attention. I tried explaining that I don't work for the Post, but nobody was listening. To my surprise, one guy was exclaiming how great the Post was, talking excitedly, "Oooo, Borei Keila, Boeung Kak, I read it in the Phnom Penh Post. Post is very good, very good. Borei Keila not good, very bad. They steal! People's houses! Post very good!" and so on. Others grunted emphatic agreements.
I wasn't surprised that they thought that the Post was good, but that back here in the middle of rural nowheresville they knew it at all. And more, that they had learned about controversial land-grabbing issues from it. And even more, that they were greatly appreciative to have that information, presumably in contrast to the say-nothing local Cambodian press.
Most of the local Cambodian press, whether government controlled or cowered into self censorship, remains almost silent on controversial issues such as land-grabbing and the attendant protests. The English language press in Cambodia (The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post) regularly reports on these controversial topics and is largely tolerated by the government, presumably because (even in its Khmer language version) it is thought to have very little penetration into the Khmer market, especially in the countryside where most of the population resides.
For at least the last decade and a half the government has shown sensitivity to foreign news about Cambodia (especially news with a critical/anti-government lean) reaching into the countryside. As early as the 1998 election period, back when rural folk got much or most of their news from radio, I heard regular reports of village chiefs patrolling at night, listening under the thin floored stilted houses for people tuned into VOA (broadcast in Khmer), and then threatening them to turn it off. More recently, in the last commune elections (2012), for the first time ever the government ordered VOA and RFA off-the-air on election day.
Sitting back in the rural countryside 20km from the nearest paved road, and seeing the impact The Phnom Penh Post was making back there, I wondered how long the tolerance of the English language press and its unrestrained reporting could last in Cambodia. On a related note, with Internet penetration expanding exponentially and Facebook users now likely exceeding a half-million in Cambodia, I have also wondered whether the ruling party's recent paranoid-seeming tactics in the run-up to the national elections may be due in part to their fear of losing grip on the media and the flow of information in Cambodia.
Which brings me to The Cambodia Daily. The Daily, in my opinion, like most of the English language press, leans anti-government, and has been hitting hard in the last couple of months as the election approaches, (not that there is anything wrong with that in a country that supposedly enjoys freedom of the press.) Last week, the Daily launched an online version of its publication in Khmer language, free of charge, including all of its election coverage and stories critical of the ruling party and government. This is a timely and, in my opinion, gutsy move on their part, especially during this very tense pre-election period and on Internet where the government feels its media control slipping. This is also a fine example for other in-country media that self-censors for fear of reprisal. Granted, it is easier for the Daily than the Cambodian press because it is run mostly by foreigners and has far less penetration in the Khmer market, but as demonstrated by the impact of the Post deep in the country, this latter part is changing.
It will be interesting to see what happens. If the online Khmer Cambodia Daily catches on, if it begins to penetrate deeply into the Khmer market, will it face temporary suspensions during sensitive times like VOA/RFA, or worse, threats and intimidation like the Khmer press? Or will it perhaps help lead the way to a freer press in Cambodia?
The Cambodia Daily - Khmer version