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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Barks, bytes, and 15 minutes of fear

Barks, bytes, and 15 minutes of fear

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

Without Skin."

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

world.

"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

Switzerland.

"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

P'nhieng.

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.

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