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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - On the quest for righteous outrage

Patrick Falby (right) with former managing editor Robert Carmichael. Michael Hayes' personal archives
Patrick Falby (right) with former managing editor Robert Carmichael. Michael Hayes' personal archives

On the quest for righteous outrage

I began working as an intern at The Post in early 2002, right after the first commune elections. Half a year or so before that, a British backpacker inspired me to apply. Sitting at a bus stop on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, he’d regaled me with stories of his own internship.

He’d just finished six months at The Post, he said, spending three months in Phnom Penh and then three months reporting from the countryside, picking up scathing views about international development practices along the way. He recounted a story of confronting a corrupt cop near the border, and made being an intern at The Post sound completely badass.

He had so much righteous outrage! I wanted a taste of righteous outrage, or at least some direction in life after fleeing an English teaching job in Bangkok. I’d just spent a week in Cambodia and wished I’d stayed longer. How do you become an intern there, I asked. Well, he’d been an intern at The Guardian in London and an editor there had worked at The Post and put in a good word for him. Good luck, the backpacker shrugged.

After buses took us separate ways, the incredible appeal of working at The Post grew. I’d never had so much clarity about what I wanted to do, and never have since. I emailed then-managing editor Phelim Kyne to ask whether I could apply.

He responded right away: Sure send your CV and a few writing samples to our editor-in-chief, Michael Hayes. My CV contained no journalism experience. Aside from the short teaching stint in Bangkok, I’d had some summer jobs and a radio show in university, where I majored in English literature, but most of my time had been taken up playing football (hence the lack of direction).

I made up three writing samples and sent my application off, volunteering to work for free for six to eight months. A while later Michael emailed to offer an internship. I felt like I’d won the lottery.

To raise enough cash for the endeavour, I taught English for four months in South Korea. Then, on the first Monday morning after the commune elections, I showed up at the old office across from Wat Botum. I felt so unprepared and nervous that when Michael said, “Pop quiz, new intern: Who’s the king?” I stammered and couldn’t remember, even though I had just been reading an article about Norodom Sihanouk on the table right in front of me.

Eventually I got over that embarrassment and learned how to be a journalist. I certainly benefited from the fact that things in those days were more informal, especially for foreigners.

Ministers would regularly answer their cell phones and give interviews, and you could show up at nearly anyone’s office or home to ask them about their job or their life. The fortnightly publishing schedule allowed me to figure out how to put articles together just in time for each issue. Since then, of course, The Post has expanded to become a daily newspaper, with Khmer and English editions as well as an active presence online. Plus, a lot more organisations now talk to reporters through spokespersons who can obfuscate facts rather than provide answers.

I ended up staying at The Post for a year and a half, as Michael began paying me with a few hundred dollars here and some meal vouchers from restaurant advertisers there. It’s impossible to quantify how much I learned by reporting with everyone at the paper. It’s the place where I met some of my greatest friends, and the experience provided a springboard to work at international wires in Cambodia as well as newsrooms around the world.

Being at The Post was even better than the British backpacker had described. Somehow I never developed his sense of righteous outrage, but I feel privileged to have done some of the first deeper reporting on issues that are still relevant in Cambodia today, such as the outstanding Lon Nol era debt to the US, the selling of royal titles like oknha, and the Cambodian People’s Party’s power relationship with Cambodian Buddhism.

On publication days, while I waited for my stories to be proofed, I would sit in the newsroom and read bound volumes of The Post’s first 10 years. I could see that we were taking the paper through Cambodia’s transition, no longer focusing on the war of the past. We were examining what would come next – an aim that remains with the paper on its 25th anniversary.

Looking through those back issues of the paper, though, something else quickly became apparent: the British backpacker had no bylines. No one in the office remembered him. He’d never been an intern at The Post.

Patrick Falby was at The Post from 2002 to 2003, and subsequently worked as Phnom Penh bureau chief for Deutsche Presse-Agentur (2003-2004) and Agence-France Presse (2008-2010). He now lives in Copenhagen, working as Director/Europe for Prides Crossing Strategic Writers Group.

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