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Sar Sophorn with his family, in Finland.
Sar Sophorn with his family, in Finland. Supplied

Tale of two journalists: exile, freedom, a return

Since 1992, 252 journalists have been killed in Southeast Asia (out of 985 worldwide). The Philippines is the second deadliest country in the world for a journalist – at least 73 have been killed since 1992.Cambodia’s statistics are also unsettling: nine journalists have been killed since 1992 with a motive confirmed, the most recent just last September in the dense canopies of Ratanakiri, when Hang Serei Oudom, who had been investigating reports of illegal logging by local officials for the Virakchun Khmer Daily was found dead in the boot of a car.

Last week saw crusaders for press freedom from 67 countries gather in Phnom Penh for the twice-yearly IFEX – a network of organisations defending and promoting free expression – conference. The consortium called on ASEAN to appoint a Southeast Asia regional Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

In April, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), which produces Voice of Democracy radio, released a scathing report on the issues that fetter independent media in the country.

“Journalists are just more afraid than ever to speak, there’s a huge cycle of intimidation and threats - journalists don’t dare to report on things now, it’s self-censorship. The biggest hurdle here is the political environment,” CCIM director Pa Ngoun Teang told 7Days.

A university teacher at the time, he said the killing of journalists, the intimidation of the media, and the exile of many reporters in 1990s had spurred his passion for working in the media and promoting free press. He was arrested himself in 2006.

7Days spoke to two journalists, Sar Sophorn and Lem Piseth, who were forced into exile after receiving death threats in response to politically charged stories they had reported.

Sar Sophorn, 40, is the former editor-in-chief of two now defunct political opposition newspapers: Serei Pheap Thmei (New Liberty News) and Proyuth News (Fighter News). At age 20, Sophorn began his newspaper career as a technician on the Khmer Youth Newspaper. In August 1997, after the coup d’état, Sophorn republished Fighter News. It was swiftly suspended by the Ministry of Information and a summons to appear at the Phnom Penh municipal court was issued for “misinformation” under the UNTAC-period criminal law. Sophorn fled to Thailand, in January 1998 where he was classified a UNHCR person of concern. From Bangkok, he edited Light of the Khmer Nation (an online opposition bulletin) and became the general assistant to opposition leader Sam Rainsy. On December 24, 1999, he was held in custody in Bangkok with Sam Rainsy Party member Sok Yoeun. CPP officials alleged Sok Yoeun (Sophorn’s father-in-law) was involved in a 1998 Siem Reap rocket attack that was alleged to be an assassination attempt against Prime Minister Hun Sen. On March 22, 2001, Sophorn was granted political asylum in the Netherlands. Sophorn now lives in Helsinki, Finland, with his wife and two-year-old daughter, and is a member of the Cambodia Friendship Association in Finland.

“It was a shock when many of my reporter or editor peers, some were friends, were killed. In June 1994 Tou Chhorn Mongkol [editor of Antarakhum (Intervention), a paper which had condemned corruption among government officials] was shot dead on the street. Then in March his office was attacked with a grenade [nobody was ever held accountable]. When Noun Chan was gunned down in 1994 driving in the streets of the city, it was unbelievable, terrible. But I continued as a journalist. After 1997 I visited the UN human rights office and they advised me to flee to Bangkok. I went through Battambang, in the evening, and hid there for one night. Then in Poipet in a taxi. I was paranoid and anxious. Someone helped me cross the border. I was so young and small at that time. At least as a print journalist, I thought, nobody knew my face or voice.

“The past is the past, but it’s also the present. My articles were about UNTAC, deforestation, corruption. I stay in touch with people in Cambodia and have hosted or met with many Cambodians who come to Finland – Mu Sochua, Kem Sokha, musicians, CPP members, Licadho, I try to open up my home and knowledge to anyone with a Cambodian connection. It’s my nature do be active and help my country, despite the distance. Others [political exiles in Helsinki] are still afraid [of persecution] even though they are far away from Cambodia…some say they always will be, but I’m not really. I don’t keep silent as others do. I’ve been back to Cambodia a few times and, yes, I feel protected by my Finnish citizenship.

Journalist Sar Sophorn was the editor of two political opposition newspapers but fled the country in 1998.
Journalist Sar Sophorn was the editor of two political opposition newspapers but fled the country in 1998. Suppled

“Most Cambodian people here are political refugees. There are two main groups, those that came in the late 1980s after the Khmer Rouge and a second wave who came in late 2000. People in danger, identified by the UN.

Finland and Norway and the Netherlands were the countries that we could get to quickest – the US was next but it took longer and most of us were in imminent danger. Most are from the Sam Rainsy Party, some are from unions – Chea Vichea’s wife lives here and is a good friend. She only spent a few days in Bangkok. Most of them are living in Helsinki and Espoo [the country’s second largest city].

“The community here follow what is happening at home very, very closely. We still also have water festival, Khmer New Year celebrations. This is important perhaps because Finland, these northern parts of the world are the polar opposite to Cambodia. Sometimes it’s -30 degrees. It might seem not a big deal compared to what they have been through but it is difficult - the darkness, culture change, the food. But you adapt and then you enjoy. The quality of education and the healthcare and government support is overwhelming.

“For many here, it is not safe to return to Cambodia and they miss it everyday. People donate money to various causes and campaigns.

“The elections…it’s hard to say…but could be dark. Cambodian people are very scared in public, they cannot speak freely. I guess we’re afforded that now [in Finland]. Vote buying and intimidation still exists in Cambodia.

“The community here get together at dinners - we listen to radio, internet and we discuss what is happening, the BK residents, anyone who has a problem. We do what we can, we donate what we can. There’s not much Cambodian food here but we have Battambang rice and morning glory…there’s no Prahok though.

“I’m very happy now. I have a family, I graduated with a degree in social healthcare. I live freely, enjoy democracy and breathe freedom here. Cambodians live here and in other countries like this without corruption, and that’s the biggest point - safety. I don’t know if I want my daughter to go to Cambodia but I want her to have a connection to the country.”

Lem Piseth, 44, worked on and off for two decades as a broadcast reporter for Radio Free Asia and the editor of newspaper The Free Press Magazine before fleeing to Thailand in 2008. He had been investigating a drug trafficking and murder case with links to officials. Three days earlier, he says, his daughter found six bullets lined up outside the family’s front gates. As dusk fell on April 13 in Phnom Penh, a group of eight men on motorcycles surrounded Piseth and threatened him. He spent eight months in Bangkok before he was granted asylum in Norway and said throughout that time he “never felt safe.” It was the third time Piseth had fled to Thailand in response to death threats he encountered – numerous phone calls from anonymous people asking him if he wanted to die. He believes these were responses to reports of his that aired on deforestation in swathes of Prey Long and Kampong Thom. In mid 2009 he re-launched The Free Press Magazine online from his Grimstad home, where his wife and five children continue to live. He returned to Cambodia this year and hopes to mentor the future generations of journalists – he’s helped train Apsara TV journalists in Bangkok and wants to start a web-cast news service.

“We worked for freedom of the press and expression. Our first issue of the magazine was printed in November 2007. We covered some sensitive issues and all 2000 copies were confiscated on November 3. Police came to our offices and created biographies and profiles on all of our staff. My house in Kandal was visited by police. We had 10 journalists at this stage, and I advised all to have a low profile. As publisher and editor, I fled, that was the second time [the first was as a RFA reporter]. I came back again in December. I didn’t want to live abroad. I wanted to work for the media in my own country so much. I think that the media help build democracy, especially in developing countries. I never knew who or what was threatening me and that was the scariest part.

 Lem Piseth, 44, who fled to Norway but has recently returned.
Lem Piseth, 44, who fled to Norway but has recently returned. supplied

“That last time, when I was surrounded by the men, I felt lonely and afraid. We were all in a sea, we could not see who it was – the government, the military, the opposition? When many of the papers started in the 90s, there was so much fighting between politicians, games being played, killing people and accusing each other. Very, very murky. We work for our own will, we work for our people. That’s the ultimate role of the journalist. Just to tell the truth.

“I fled in a taxi through Siem Reap, I felt really deflated and upset when I left. I thought I had lost my chance, as a journalist. I thought: that’s my career over. I didn’t want to go. Some people want to go to get citizenship in other countries, the West. For me that is not important.

“I remember when Noun Chan was killed [the editor of Samleng Yuvachun Khmer, who was killed in 1994] I never knew him though. I felt frustrated, afraid, anger. My wife and family almost every night asked me to stop. My mother was petrified. Before I was a teacher, my mother and father had been teaching. They wanted me to continue that, not to challenge things. Especially the type of journalist I was, an aggressive one. Most of my articles then were biased towards the opposition, even though I was not a member of the political party. I’ve changed now. I’ve had the chance to study journalism, and I value being objective, balanced. When I worked back then at the start, much was opinion, rather than news.

“I was first a high school teacher since 1989. I always enjoyed reading the newspapers, in the early 90s. I could read some English but not much. I then saw the Phnom Penh Post. I would read it cover to back with a dictionary.

I really valued journalists after that and made it my mission to become one. I realised when things [are given coverage in the press] people are more likely to take actions – most are afraid to be criticised publicly – so the media has a lot of sway and power in that way. I want to work for an organisation that isn’t controlled by anything or dictated to or abused by authorities, to be able to use my own freedom – so I decided to write articles for local papers.

“I used to report on deforestation and I supported [murdered environmental activist] Chut Wutty’s activity. In Prey Long in 2007, I remember we got messages from Global Witness…clues… then they assigned me to the jungle to investigate deforestation - it is the largest forest in Southeast Asia. I went undercover as an illegal logger…in disguise…and had the chance to meet commune leaders, chance to talk to the loggers, the military. When I think of this now it was incredibly dangerous. They followed me at that time. Who knows if it was the government, the military, the villagers – there’s a range of people who logging benefits and I won’t point fingers.

“I completed a graduate diploma in media management in the US. We invited media projects to join in training sessions in Bangkok in 2011 and 2012 – I wanted them in Cambodia but was still afraid. Can I come back? I want to say that …I fled the country for my safety. Not because I wanted to leave. I wanted asylum for my safety. Now that situation is better I want to be back here.

“I’m here to set up my second test to the Cambodian government – is it okay for me to be here? They know that I am here.

“In Norway, I wrote about refugees and immigration. I understood and learnt much about reporting. That is why it is important for me to continue my magazine, here in Cambodia. The government need to learn, journalists need to learn.”

*Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said journalists had not been persecuted over the last two decades in Cambodia.

“I can say that at time between 1993-2000 many people used the occasion to gain a visa to a foreign country. In response to threats after deforestation articles…the courts in Cambodia have already made judgements on this. The government is not idle…we do our best to ensure people are brought to justice for these crimes.”

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