Him Mat is the editor of Tngai Nis – “Today” – a four-page black-and-white newspaper whose coverage is devoted almost exclusively to the illegal logging trade in Cambodia.
The irregularly printed paper, which Mat, 34, showed off proudly yesterday inside his tiny one-room Snuol town apartment – which doubles as his newsroom – takes aim at anyone considered to be involved in forest crimes.
It is a sometimes dangerous job, but Mat says none of the local reporters get into the business out of a desire to conserve the remaining forests. They are similarly unmotivated by the ethics of journalism.
“We don’t have salaries, so sometimes loggers or sources ask us to delete pictures, or for us not to write a story. We have to do what they say because they give us sometimes $50 or $100,” says Mat, who also writes many of the articles.
The killing on Sunday of local reporter Taing Try, who was shot in the head on the side of a muddy road, allegedly by a military police officer involved in illegal logging, tragically highlights the relationship that local reporters in rural areas maintain with illegal logging syndicates. According to journalists who were with Try the day he died, that relationship can be at once symbiotic and antagonistic.
Mat is one of the more fortunate reporters the Post spoke to yesterday, as he claims his newspaper received part of a $10,000 grant from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who gave the money to the Cambodian Council of Journalists.
Others seem to flit in and out of different worlds. Journalist by day, something else by night. Reporters in Kratie deal cars and own small businesses. Two of them said they made very little from their work, but wore diamond rings and expensive-looking watches, one of which depicted the wearer in military uniform.
Chan Sina, 48, says his newspaper, Chivit Thmey, or “New Life”, closed down two years ago, but he continues to be issued press identification documents by the Information Ministry, which he uses to work as a freelancer.
“My newspaper does not publish, but I still do that job because I write stories to share with other local media and sometimes they give me $5, $10 or $20,” he says.
Sina, Mat and other reporters in Snuol act as stringers for the major Khmer national media, including for Koh Santepheap, Rasmei Kampuchea and the state television networks. The journalists say that they have little or no training and submit articles for publication based on rumours and without any fact checking.
“I did not get any training on how to write a story, so when I wrote the stories I just asked people ‘who is the owner of the timber,’ then I start to write a story. All of my stories focus on logging,” Mat said.
Sina and Mat, who knew Try well and had worked closely with him in the past, said that the situation in Snuol, the largest district in Kratie, is repeated across the country in regions where illegal logging businesses operate. Though they say the authorities have never employed them directly, they say that it is not uncommon for reporters working for newspapers in the area to be drawn from the ranks of the police, military police and the army.
In some cases, they say, a reporter may also be a police officer and illegal logger at the same time, which largely removes the need for independent sources.
Mat says the local security forces “have no desire to act against loggers, because they are loggers”.
Though money sometimes changes hands, the arrangement can quickly go south.
Sina, the freelancer, will not go out alone to report since a series of altercations with loggers culminated in Try’s killing.
“When we know who owns the timber, we start to write a story, but sometimes the loggers give some money so we do not write about them.”
A former Sam Rainsy Party activist, Sa Piseth has covered illegal logging for his Klommel, or “Watchdog”, newspaper for many years. The newspaper is informally distributed. He keeps a few copies in his cluttered Snuol apartment among piles of children’s toys.
Piseth, along with six other journalists, was with Try shortly before he was killed, and described what happened on Sunday night.
Chhon Khoeun, Snuol district’s deputy military police chief, called the group to return to an area near the Preak Chhlong River, where they had been tipped off that illegally logged timber was being transported, and had determined that it belonged to Khoeun.
They went back. Try’s car got stuck in the mud on the way back to the river, so Piseth set off towards the nearest village to get a motorbike home. The other convoy of journalists did not get stuck and drove on.
As Piseth was leaving, however, he saw a Lexus carrying three people heading in Try’s direction. The next day, he heard the news. “In the morning, my journalist friends told me Taing Try was shot to death, so I was in shock,” he said.
Try had been accused by authorities of extorting money from loggers before, but nothing came of the allegations. His wife, Chhim Mom, 46, said obliquely that he “never had a salary, but he got some money from people who gave it to him”.
She added that he was always working, and she was worried about his safety. After learning of his death and the circumstances, she filed a complaint against Khoeun, whom many journalists said was responsible for the killing.
“I don’t know about my husband extorting the money, but a lot of people liked him so much. My husband, when working, he never thinks about nighttime or daytime, if someone calls him about logging, he goes immediately,” she said.
Khoeun denied involvement in Try’s death, and he was outraged that the journalists would have the chutzpah to write a story about him.
“I am not involved with the killing, but I did call them back because that timber is mine,” he admitted. “But if they respected me and adopted me as a brother, they would not do f—king s—t like that,” Khoeun said.
Three members of the security forces – ex-soldier La Narong, 32, policeman Pin Heang, 32, and military policeman Khem Pheakdey, 27 – have been charged with the murder, and have reportedly confessed.
As well as taking money from illegal loggers, Piseth says he has received cash on two occasions – $20 and $50 – from victims of land disputes in exchange for getting articles published about their cases. “I wrote about land dispute victims, and the people gave me $20 or $50 for one story, and sometimes I got money from the loggers,” he says.
“I have received a lot of threats and a lot of complaints about disinformation.”