The Constructive Cambodian
Senior writer Tharum Bun writes on the repurcussions of a photojournalist being apprehended by the protectors of the people
Tharum Bun works for Voice of America and is also a freelance writer and one of the first bloggers in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh has its rich history, during which it has seen drastic shifts in its reputation. In the 1920s, Cambodia’s capital city was also known as the Pearl of Asia.
There aren’t many people referring to it that way any more. City residents see that this decade’s privatizations and urban development are coming, and nobody can stop it. All they hope for change is that Phnom Penh will be a more charming city, matching its neighbouring cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, if not Manila and Kuala Lumpur. They’re hopeful that along with this dramatic development comes prosperity and peace.
Last week, when a Phnom Penh Post photojournalist had his two digital cameras confiscated by security guards while he was covering a clash with Boeung Kak residents who were protesting, Cambodian journalists couldn’t help but be alarmed.
As a professional photographer, Sovan Philong was treated like a criminal and ordered to delete photographs from his digital cameras.
Like any other journalist, Sovan Philong’s role is to document lives of many who have been affected by the city's growth and would otherwise be silent. Those photographs he took during the riot will become an invaluable draft of history, forever on record to show how this city has changed during this century.
But this case is an aberration in some ways. Private firms, still scared of journalists, could learn something from the government ministries' general behaviour towards the press. They know they must communicate with the public in some way, and therefore select a spokesperson who carefully shares information regarding the activities of his or her ministry.
This mechanism of opening lines of communication with the public without allowing free access has been instrumental in building Cambodia’s unique brand of democracy. This clash with a photojournalist is not typical of their careful stance when exposed to public scrutiny.
Perhaps more importantly, these events remind us all that the government and other power brokers may be talking, but there are things they don’t want mentioned. It is people like Sovan Philong, who was doing his job of documenting the history of Cambodia, who might eventually create a city that is once again called a pearl.