A banned documentary exploring the murder of Chea Vichea, one of Cambodia’s most famous labour leaders, has won one of journalism’s highest plaudits and once again earned the ire of the government.
Who Killed Chea Vichea? chronicles the life and death of the Free Trade Union leader, who was gunned down while reading a newspaper outside Wat Langka in 2004.
Bom Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were eventually tried and convicted for Chea Vichea’s murder. Both men are widely held to be innocent, a contention shared by the documentary.
Last week, Who Killed Chea Vichea? was honoured with a Peabody Award, a prize that recognises distinguished public service in broadcast journalism.
“Inside the US it’s one of the most prestigious awards you can get,” said Bradley Cox, the film’s director. “We were glad that we won.
“We’re happy because the award will bring more attention to the movie and hopefully the current situation in Cambodia. In its wider context, the film is about the corruption and impurity in the rule of law that most Cambodians have to live with every day. It’s an important story, and it’s one that people should know about.”
Horace Newcomb, director of the Peabody board, said that Cox’s documentary was deserving of the honour.
“We are very aware of how changes in technology, lower equipment and other production costs have enabled more and more documentary filmmakers to do their work,” Newcomb said. “We’re always pleased to see innovative, enterprising work of this sort.”
Human rights advocates have lauded the Peabody win for helping to amplify calls for justice in the case.
Theary Seng, Founder of the Cambodian Center for Justice & Reconciliation and the founding president of CIVICUS: Center for Cambodian Civic Education, was a personal friend of Chea Vichea and wrote an endorsement letter in January to the Peabody Award Committee in support of the film.
“To have this kind of international recognition is an amazing feat,” said Theary Seng upon hearing of the win. “It will put more pressure on the government to be accountable and confront the problem of political murders.”
She added that the recognition may make international donor countries and aid agencies “more responsible with how money is being put to use in the regime”.
The film has been banned in Cambodia and authorities have shut down attempts at public screenings, sometimes forcefully.
Last Friday, Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, told media that the documentary’s Peabody win was “politically motivated”, a claim firmly refuted by the Peabody board.
“This is simply not the case,” said Newcomb. “A review of all the award recipients over the years shows a concern for social issues, but also for entertainment, education, public service and so on. Such a review would show no political motivation other than our interest in excellent media production.”
The film’s director is unfazed by Phay Siphan’s comments.
“The Cambodian government has been trying to block our movie from the beginning, so it’s no surprise that they would disparage it again now, but their comments, as usual, are completely without merit,” Cox said.
Despite the government ban, Cambodian nationals still have access to the film through the internet.
Copies of the film’s Khmer language version have been uploaded to YouTube and watched in excess of 26,000 times.
Cox is pleased that his documentary is still finding an audience but would prefer it to be more accessible to the people of Cambodia.
“Obviously internet penetration in Cambodia is low, so we’d like to rely more on the spread of DVDs,” Cox said. “Everyone who wants to see this movie should be able to. It’s guaranteed in the Cambodian constitution.”