Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?
King Henry II of England (1170) referring to Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury
The plane doors are about to close on my flight to Cambodia. When I land in Phnom Penh I will find this chaotic, noisy, and ever-expanding metropolis just as I left it a couple of months ago. Maybe some new construction projects will have started, maybe the traffic on a busy street has been re-routed for the building of yet another overpass aspiring to alleviate the out-of-control congestion, maybe another a trendy new coffee shop. As much as can ever be said of a teeming city of over two million people, everything will be pretty much the same. Except for one major difference: no more will I be able to wake up in the morning to get my daily fix of the news from The Cambodia Daily.
My affair with this small paper started 23 years ago on my first trip to Cambodia in August 1994. The country then was very much in transition. The first (truly) democratic elections had taken place in 1993, resulting in two Prime Ministers (and two of lots of other things in the governing and administration of Cambodia). King Norodom Sihanouk was back on the throne, though constitutionally neutered. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia had left, for better or for worse, and NGOs mushroomed, turning Cambodia into a giant fungus of do-gooders, dreamers, and deceivers. Though tempered by trepidation, the excitement and optimism was as real as it was infectious.
Back then, most expats, save for the French speakers, got their news from two newspapers, The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post. Much was happening in Cambodia and I recall how we were all starved for the latest news, whether it was about politics, the economy, the environment, the nascent art scene, or the opening of the latest culinary delight. This was all before internet news outlets, the I must be connected 24/7 age, Google, Facebook, and let’s not forget Twitter.
Whereas The Cambodia Daily was a daily (Monday through Friday), The Phnom Penh Post was a bimonthly that hit the stands every other Friday afternoon. I vividly recall how the expats looked forward to The Phnom Penh Post, published by Michael Hayes – a character out of a Graham Greene novel. Michael was not a journalist by training or profession, but he had instincts and gumption that more than made up for any lack of journalistic tradecraft. Because The Phnom Penh Post was a bimonthly, it featured large articles on in-depth investigative reporting on a variety of social and political issues, and became a venue for debates among historians, political scientists, human rights advocates, and polemicists. It was informative, occasionally dense, but always fun to read. There was just something about these old Cambodian hands never being able to agree on just about anything, yet without being disagreeable in doing so. I suspected Michael enjoyed stirring the pot. Anyway, this all changed when The Phnom Penh Post was sold and became a daily. It is still a good read, but a far cry from what it once was.
The Cambodia Daily never had much use for lengthy polemics; it was not a newspaper for the salon. It was a no-nonsense daily that had all the attributes of any good (very good) daily newspaper. It too had in-depth investigative reporting. It never dithered in taking on the embarrassing or corrupt or inconvenient issue that could raise eyebrows and heat tempers of the powerful and the privileged.
The Cambodia Daily may have on occasion gotten some things wrong. It comes with the territory: the pressures of working on drop-dead deadlines while striving to accurately, succinctly, objectively report on the facts. But those instances, at least from what I have seen over the past 23 of the 24-year lifespan of The Cambodia Daily, were rare. What has impressed me is its consistency in meeting the highest journalist standards, its careful yet determined reporting, and its level of excellence.1Full disclosure: Over the years both the The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily have graciously published a number of my submitted commentaries.
What also impressed me over the past decade is the careful and balanced reporting of the trials and other proceedings and events at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). It is not easy to follow the logic of questioning, relay the gist of a complex decision, or summarize complex facts and legal issues. I know from sources that Bernie Krisher, the newspaper’s founder, publisher, and philanthropist, detested my former client at the ECCC, Ieng Sary. Yet, I never once felt that The Cambodia Daily was biased in its reporting on matters related to him. I may not have agreed with some of the claims against my client or the conclusions reached by the journalists following the testimony, but never did I feel that the reporting was biased or intentionally misleading.
Over the years, I have seen little change in The Cambodia Daily. It seemed to have gotten the formula right from the very beginning. It had the right balance of national and international news. It also had a small section in Khmer (the Cambodian language), covering the major national stories, and at least once a week, it had a page on learning English, offering a smorgasbord of practical words and phrases. I enjoyed handing out that section to children going around selling trinkets, postcards, books, etc.
In the recent past, The Cambodia Daily added a weekend edition with engaging and topical sketches of individuals, events, and places, with things to do, art shows to visit, live music to hear, and so on. Reading The Cambodia Daily was a real treat, a fitting reason for indulging in an extra cup of coffee on a Saturday or Sunday morning.
So it should come as no surprise that when I first learned that The Cambodia Daily was $6.3 million behind in taxes and that unless it paid up in full in 30 days it would be forced to close, I was in shock, but also in pain. How could The Cambodia Daily be so irresponsible as the government claims? How is it that for 24 years, the Cambodian tax authorities did not know that The Cambodia Daily was not paying its fair share of taxes? How is it possible that such arrears have gone on for so long and so unnoticed?
If there is proof that The Cambodia Daily does in fact owe the amount claimed, then it should have been given an opportunity to see how it may have erred or cheated, and it should be afforded, as any foreign enterprise that has invested in Cambodia would unquestionably expect, a fair hearing to respond and to challenge the claims made against it.
Seemingly, The Cambodia Daily is being punished for its hard-hitting reporting on the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and its ruling elite. But The Cambodia Daily has been engaged in hard-hitting investigative reporting since it was founded, never taking sides with any political party or political personage, however popular or unpopular. It has never pulled any punches or meted out any favors in the 23 years I have been reading it. So why, all of a sudden, would the CPP elite develop an irrepressible case of thin-skin, curable only by the demise of The Cambodia Daily? Could it be that such reporting would negatively impact the CPP in the next election?
If indeed The Cambodia Daily is being punished (snuffed, to be more exact) as some suggest, then killing the messenger will do little to kill the message; not in this day and age of social media. Facts are facts. Wishful facts or alternative facts espoused or masquerading as truth are fabrications, invariably revealed as such in time and with a bit of sunshine.
We see the peddling of alternative facts in the United States with President Donald Trump. What a spectacle of cheap theatrics laced with lies and innuendo. Whenever he does not like the news, he brands journalists as “bad people,” viciously spreading “fake news.” When confronted with the truth, President Trump and his coterie resort to alternative facts – make-believe – to dispute inconvenient truths that are beyond dispute and beyond change. If Trump had the power to do as he wishes (a terrifying thought), I have no doubt that he would be shutting down every printing press and every media outlet that criticized him or dared print or utter what he claims is fake news. His Twitter feed would be the news, and the United States would end up much as depicted in Sinclair Lewis’s IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE.
Killing the messenger may yield temporary satisfaction, but the message remains constant, unyielding to alternative facts, magnified in relevance and correctness.
I do not know more about the reasons behind the closure of The Cambodia Daily than what I am reading in the press. Nor do I claim to know what are the facts or what may be the alternative facts – what the truth is. There are always two sides to a story when two are in dispute. Perhaps if I had some proof, credible proof of the claims lodged against The Cambodia Daily I, would be better placed to make an intelligent, informed, and independent decision on where the truth most likely lies in this perplexing affair. Ironically, my source for such credible information was frequently The Cambodia Daily, itself.
Is it coincidence that this tax issue has come up just as the political maneuvering for the next election has started, or is it a convergence of events? Who knows! All I know is that for me, the closure of The Cambodia Daily is the end of the reading affair I have had with it over the years. And what a memorable affair it has been.
|↑1||Full disclosure: Over the years both the The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily have graciously published a number of my submitted commentaries.|