In a nation battling floods, fainting factory staff and the plight of domestic workers overseas, only so many stories can be crammed into restrictive column inches.
In a country that is on the cusp of success, so-called “bad news stories” only serve some amount of good.
And in a place where everyone has a tale to tell, only so many can be told.
For more than three decades now, journalists have grappled to tell stories of Cambodia. But one Pulitzer Prize winning hack, with a yoot-load of celebrity backing, is going one further. Having taken on the plight of women as his own journalistic crusade, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has written countless columns, co-created a bestselling book with his wife and made a name for himself all over the world.
As part of a documentary, to supplement his bestseller Half The Sky; Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Kristof has returned to Cambodia to meet victims and report on the progress of the situation.
And he’s brought an A-list supporter along for the ride – actress Meg Ryan. The pair spent much of last week in the northern part of the country. Much of the visit was focused around the work of iconic activist, Somaly Mam.
Mam, originally from Mondulkiri province, has won accolades all over the world and a legion of celebrity fans for her fearless campaign to bring down sexual slavery – of which she was a victim.
Following years of rape, abuse and torture, during which time she says she watched her best friend murdered, she managed to free herself from her captors and set up The Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007 to fight against trafficking and sexual slavery.
While her battle has won her great approbation at home and abroad, she has come up against threats and abuse from the Cambodian sex industry. Kristof himself reported that Mam’s own 14 year-old daughter was allegedly abducted, raped and filmed in a revenge plot by the very people she has strived to bring down.
Mam’s story is told in Half the Sky, and is being revisited for the film version, which will appear on PBS television in the US next year.
As for Meg Ryan’s involvement, Half the Sky is no stranger to celebrity endorsement. Vast praise from the likes of Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Christy Turlington is what cemented the book’s reach and popularity.
During her time in the Kingdom, the star met with victims at one of Somaly Mam’s centres, and was pictured with one trafficking victim whose eye had been gouged out by a brothel owner, and another who had been sold at the age of six, and raped and beaten every day.
During their time in Oddar Meanchey province, Kristof live-tweeted dramatic events from a brothel raid.
“Police burst in, disarmed brothel owners, took their phones so they can’t call for help… Girls are rescued, but still very scared. Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam… Social workers comforting the girls, telling them they are free, won’t be punished, rapes are over…Brothel has 10 rooms for sex, all lockable from outside. It has operated with impunity with underage girls for yrs.”
While Kristof said his tweets and follow-up New York Times columns on the raid were to raise public awareness, his efforts were met with some criticism.
Several campaigners said he was sensationalising the situation and taking advantage of victims. Tania DoCarmo, a Phnom Penh-based anti-trafficking campaigner with Chab Dai, tweeted that Kristof’s style was too intrusive.
“Inappropriate, insensitive, sensationalized… Raids r complicated & traumatizing enough w/o bystander tweeting on the sidelines.”
A blogger for The Faster Times wrote, “Kristof’s live tweets of the dramatic rescue certainly made for gripping reading for an international online audience. But was live-tweeting the incident the right thing to do? …Using a live Twitter stream in this instance was both potentially dangerous and in bad taste… The tweets could have put both the girls and their Cambodian rescuers in danger. It’s not hard to figure out who is who, and where is where from Kristof’s 140 word missives for a person with some knowledge of Cambodia.”
This is not the first time Kristof has raised controversy through his work in the Kingdom. Half The Sky includes an account of how Kristof bought and freed two girls from slavery in Cambodian brothels, then set them up in businesses. While the story is commendable to many – he was reunited with the girls last week – others accused the reporter of feeding the dragon he was trying to defeat.
Whether his motives are admirable or questionable, his accounts sensationalist or savvy, it’s undoubtable that Kristof, his work, and the celebrities he happens to bring along for the ride, draw attention to the horrendous cases of modern day slavery in Cambodia. And that can really do little but help the cause.