Just hours after the story broke about the capture of long-lost Rochom P'nhieng if
that is who she is media in Phnom Penh came under furious assault from battalions
of the Western press corps sent to jostle for a piece of the action.
Clashes of opportunism were frequent. The management of the Post and local media
professionals were bombarded by inquiries and demands from dozens of news agencies
on the night of January 19. The next several days were a blitzkrieg of foreign reporters
and film crews eager for access and animism. A competitive frenzy set in.
"It's a race against time. We need to get there first," Monica Kosicka,
assistant producer for Fox Television Studios UK, told the Post from Lamb House,
London on January 19. "Exclusivity is very important to us. Can I fax you an
exclusivity contract for you to get the girl to sign?"
Kosicka said it was best to "move fast, lock down the family and work together."
She said her boss was "keen" to feature P'nhieng in a coming episode of
the documentary TV series My Shocking Story. Previous episodes in the series include
"I Gave Birth to a Mummy," "Face Eating Tumor, " and "Living
Efforts like Fox's exclusivity contract - which bore a place for P'nhieng to write
her signature - were common. The invading press impressed with its determination
to overcome linguistic and logistic pitfalls in the pursuit of journalism. When told
that P'nhieng's communication skills had diminished somewhat after 18 years in the
jungle, Kosicka was undeterred: "Does she grunt?" she asked.
The journalistic bark was hardly worse than the bytes. Almost immediately, P'nhieng
began appearing around the world in images splashed across newspapers, TV and the
Internet. She appeared woeful and scared: peering sorrowfully, with pleading, furtive
eyes, through clouds of incredulity.
Most of all, P'nhieng hardly looked as if she was enjoying her 15 minutes of fear.
With all the subtlety of a fast-clicking camera thrust into the face, tiny Un village
has been transformed. The sleepy jungle hamlet has endured an avalanche of onlookers
and is now the center of a media maelstrom.
According to a Post reporter, the situation on the ground was giddy. The Associated
Press film crew and CNN were jockeying for footage, and representatives from all
the major wire services were elbowing for angles. The Times of London had arrived,
and The Daily Telegraph was on its way. Cambodian magazine writers were surveying
the scene alongside Radio Free Asia and the BBC.
Through the efforts of the Fourth Estate, the story of P'nhieng was brought to the
"Since she arrived back home many people have come to see her. It's getting
worse each day," said Mao Sann, O'Yadao district police chief. "O'Yadao
is a remote district of a remote province. No one ever came here. Now, it looks like
a tourist resort because there are so many foreign journalists."
But Phann Ana, a veteran Phnom Penh newspaperman and jounalism trainer, yawns. He
said the feeding frenzy is unsurprising as this is exactly the sensationalist fodder
sought by eager, overseas reporters bent on the biggest and most bizarre. Over the
course of the story, Ana fielded innumerable requests for him to take reporters into
the field and translate. He was asked to arrange one trip for a reporting team from
"People like this story because it's odd; everyone can relate to missing children,"
Ana told the Post. " What people kept asking was about the details: what does
she look like, why is her hair so short? They were trying to make sure it was real."
The fervor is remarkable, but not unprecedented. Ana says the last time the foreign
press descended so quickly on Cambodia was in November 2004, when 34 members of four
hill-tribe families emerged from the jungle where they had fled after the collapse
of the Khmer Rouge.
What's odd to Ana is that the Khmer press largely ignored the story.
"Khmer papers write a lot about superstition: dogs with ten legs and magic cows,
cats and pigs. But the only mention I saw in Khmer papers was a translation from
Reuters," he said. "I think [the attention from foreign press] is good.
Everyone has a chance to get famous."
Reportedly found "naked," crawling on all fours," and, in an initial
local report "with a wild, tattooed man with a long sword," the tale does
fit the tabloid story list. Media who contacted the Post were understandably more
interested in the story's curious elements than its truth, or the consequences for
Reports suggest socialization has been rare in similar cases. Ivan Mishukov, a four-year-old
Russian child who in 1996 became the leader of a pack of wild dogs for two years,
had difficulty readapting to normal life.
And social analysts are groaning about Cambodia's portrayal in the international
media for a country that's had its share of bad headlines.
The international media's fascination with lurid accounts - in this case of some
crazy-eyed bogeyman with a jungle bride - only furthers stereotypical notions connecting
the Kingdom's image with mystery, darkness and danger.