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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Beneath the tamarind tree

Beneath the tamarind tree

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At a street-side noodle shop across from the National Assembly, journalism's

movers and shakers talk hardball politics, debate the responsibilities of a national

press, and drink lots and lots of tea.

There are many noodle and coffee stalls on the sidewalk of Street 240, opposite the

National Assembly, but only one is known locally as Sakphea Dam Apil, or the Tamarind

Tree National Assembly.

The "tamarind tree" has become Cambodian journalism's semi-official school of hard knocks, where the elders educate the up-and-comers and overt political allegiances are castigated. (L-R, facing camera) Oeur Samol, assistant to Sam Rainsy; Touch Nora, Cambodia Today; Kong Sotharith, Cambodge Soir; Suy Se, AFP; Vong Sopheak, Cambodia Today/Voice of Khmer Youth; Meas Rity, Kampuchea Thmei.

Every morning, a group of Cambodian journalists gather under the shade of a large

tamarind tree to drink cheap coffee, share news and enjoy a robust debate over politics,

history and the merits of each other's stories.

A coffee costs just 500 riel and is usually followed by dozens of glasses of free

tea, as local journalists swap stories and joke until lunch.

One of the more outspoken is Soy Sopheap, a familiar face to those who watch his

early morning summary and analysis of the day's news on Cambodian Television Network

(CTN). The feedback he gets from his peers and tidbits of new information are crucial

to his work.

"I am famous for reading newspapers and providing commentary on CTN because

of the ideas from the Tamarind Tree National Assembly," Sopheap said. "I

never lose face [on air] because of my analysis around the table."

The thought of losing face among peers keeps the news-hounds sharp.

"You can't join the group if you always give out wrong information because you

lose face when the majority argues against your idea," said Khieu Kola, a freelance

journalist and veteran figure in the Khmer press.

"There is free speech and independence, but if you associate yourself with one

political party without proper reason and balance, you lose face," Kola said.

While most reporters who find themselves on the wrong side of the truth accept some

teasing, it's not uncommon for an outspoken pundit to eat breakfast alone for a day

or two after making a public gaff under the tamarind tree.

But embarrassment or grudges don't usually last long, Kola said.

"We have created a culture of helping each other, we buy each other coffee or

noodles when someone is really broke"

The folding tables and plastic chairs are in a perfect location for political reporters,

as they can stroll across the road to the real NA when it is in session.

The shady outdoor cafe also acts as the unofficial media center of the country, with

reporters able to get documents or press releases leaked to one journalist among

the group. For those who missed a crucial quote, there's the chance to catch up and

still make deadline.

Kola, the only Khmer journalist to be on the board of both the Club of Cambodian

Journalists and the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, said sharing ideas helps to

strengthen the press.

"We meet here to promote our free press and our responsibility," he said.

"We can share information about the situation of the press in our country and

the situation of the world press, and about political and social situations."

While journalists working for foreign-language media can pick up the latest news

from party-affiliated reporters, Kola said local writers and broadcasters also benefit

from the professionalism of those trained to international standards.

However, it seems the drive towards professionalism hasn't eroded the five hour breakfast

taken by many of the kingdom's top reporters.

It's unsure what will happen to the Tamarind Tree National Assembly when the parliamentarians

move to their luxurious new building near the Naga casino, but for now, it's easy

to check the pulse of the Cambodian media.

Heng Tito is a former Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper reporter, who quit two years ago

to focus on his chain of Mondo Burger restaurants and now stops by occasionally to

relive old times.

"I come here because I still love seeing all my friends," said the 42-year-old

entrepeneur.

Pulling up in his $50,000 Landcruiser after inspecting some of his property, Tito

acknowledges the burger business has treated him better than his time working for

the daily press.

"I gave up my career because my business was improving and sometimes I felt

I lost face to politicians when I was looking for an interview but they refused,

thinking I came to extort their money."

Money is certainly an issue for journalists.

While those at the better-known media organizations can earn between $150 and $300

a month, freelancers in the provinces are paid as little as $3 per article.

Sopheap said that the lack of decent pay and training causes some journalists to

extort money from news-makers who are willing to pay to get in - or stay out - of

the headlines.

But others use the morning coffee sessions to gain access to some of the country's

most influential journalists.

Sam Rithy Duong Hak was once a reporter himself but now mixes business with pleasure

during his regular visits to the tamarind tree.

After working for a Japanese newspaper for 11 years, he gave up his job to get involved

with the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

"I visit them almost every day because I still love the career of journalism

and the important role they have in spreading out information," said Hak, who

is now the SRP chief of cabinet.

"I always appreciated that since journalists started to join hands for the development

of their profession, they have tried to understand about the difficulties the others

face," he said.

One of those who finds themselves in a shrinking minority at the table is Boy Roey,

a reporter for the only local newspaper still aligned with the SRP, Moneakseka Khmer.

The country's best-selling daily newspapers - Rasmei Kampuchea, Kampuchea Thmei and

Koh Santepheap Daily - are all considered pro-government, as are most of the broadcasters.

Roey said that the humble noodle shop on Street 240 is Phnom Penh's most streetwise

journalism course.

"I have been a journalist since 1994, without professional training and I have

written stories in Khmer for several newspapers who supported the opposition, but

I never knew about professionalism," Roey said. "I have been criticized

as an extremist supporter of the opposition, so I was reluctant to talk with others."

But now he has joined Kola, Sopheap and the other members of the Tamarind Tree National

Assembly in the political conversation that flows daily over coffee, boisterous interjections

and laughs.

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