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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The First Year

The First Year

It was January 1992. Two men were drinking and talking in their rattan chairs

on the verandah of the Renakse Hotel, and invited me over. One of them, Nate, introduced

the other to me by saying: "This is Michael. He's going to start the first English-language

newspaper in Cambodia."

A few conversations later I found myself in the managing editor's chair of the

Phnom Penh Post.

I had just moved to Cambodia to work as a stringer for the San Francisco Examiner

after finishing the better part of a decade in San Francisco's Tenderloin district,

where I had edited the neighborhood newspaper, the Tenderloin Times. The paper was

published not only in English but in Khmer, Lao, and Vietnamese to serve the inner

city's booming refugee population.

By abandoning the uncertainties of freelance journalism for the even more risky undertaking

of helping to start up a newspaper in Cambodia, I joined a team of three: Michael,

Kathleen, and Chap Narith. Despite the scarcity of staff persons on the masthead,

there was plenty of support around town for the newspaper in the early days.

It seemed that just about everyone wanted to get something published in the first

issue, with several of the local hacks competing for who was going to pen the gossip

column, now institutionalized as The Gecko. Soon enough the Post was able to hire

some reporters, with some of Cambodia's best journalists coming on board that first

year, including Mang Channo, Moeun Chhean Nariddh, and Ker Munthit.

This was Cambodia before its first national elections, before the blossoming of

an independent press, before a quarter-million refugees had been repatriated from

Thai refugee camps. It was a place where you couldn't count on having electricity

every day, even in Phnom Penh; where curfews were often imposed in the city at night,

and where you took a chance of soldiers leveling their rifle or rocket launcher at

you if didn't slow down for a checkpoint on the provincial highways.

International relief workers had only recently moved their offices from cramped

quarters in the Monorom and Samaki (Le Royal) hotels to individual villas in Boeung

Keng Kang. No one had mobile phones and getting through on a landline was difficult.

The option was often a "human phone call": one visit to set up an appointment

with a source and a second one to conduct the actual interview. Sending an international

fax was problematic; email non-existent.

Putting out the first issue of the Post was very, very difficult. After Michael

found an office for the Post, monks from Wat Botum were asked to come bless the newspaper

and new offices. Shortly after the robed ones flicked holy water over all the new

computer equipment one of us-I won't say who-mistakenly plugged the laser printer

into the wrong voltage, destroying it.

A new printer-and stories-arrived just in time for us to publish the first edition

in advance of our main competition, the Cambodia Times, making the Post Cambodia's

first English-language paper to publish since 1975.

Setbacks that seemed huge at the time-brownouts and blackouts, equipment failures,

bureaucratic obstacles in getting government approval to publish-were soon but dim

memories as we slogged through rubber deadlines and all-night production binges.

Like many, I have a visceral memory of those first days and nights at the Post:

the generator chanka-chanking away 23 hours a day, the noise ricocheting up the concrete

stairway of the office to fill the entire building-and our crania-with sound; working

during the peak of the hot season with the windows closed to keep the racket out

and the smoke from several chain smokers in.

Newsgathering got only slightly easier after UNTAC arrived. Our press passes entitled

us to ride the UN's Russian helicopters and C-130 transport planes for free, enabling

day trips to Preah Vihear or Koh Nhek, but few of us traveled after dark if we could

help it. Journalists gathered for press conferences by Khmer Rouge officials at the

compound next to the Palace (now the site of Kantha Bopha hospital), or for UNTAC

spokesperson Eric Fault's noon-time briefings, where UPI reporter Sue Downey pecked

furiously away on her laptop as others dozed off their hangovers.

In the evenings the draw for journalists and UN workers was the No Problem Café

or the Gecko Bar. This was Phnom Penh before the FCC and the Lucky Market; a time

when the city's present-day restaurant district across the "Japanese Bridge"

was a deserted muddy strip, accessible only by boat because the bridge was still

shattered from a sapper raid during the war.

This was a time when the Post's offices housed not only computers, desks, and

filing cabinets but also some of the paper's most important contributors and sources.

Nate Thayer lived there, as did Michael, Kathleen, and Steve Heder. Foreign war correspondents

from other eras often slung hammocks on the roof when they came to town, along with

Montagnard leaders from North Carolina, who had come to meet FULRO fighters who had

surrendered to the UN in Mondolkiri. Coming to work some mornings I'd see Khmer Rouge

cadre squatting in the front yard of the office, waiting to talk to Nate.

While Cambodia-and the Phnom Penh Post-have both changed dramatically in the last

decade, the reckless but gutsy vision that gave birth to the paper still remains.

Let's hope that the Post remains among the vanguard of the country's press scene

for another ten years.

óSara worked at the Post in 1992 as the paper's first managing editor. She

is now a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.



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