Phnom Penh’s nightly toll of alcohol-fuelled tragedy and mayhem provides the grist for morning news shows and a sometimes dangerous job for a group of young journalists
About midnight on a street corner in Tuol Kork, a crowd gathers around two men after a motorcycle accident. One of the men is limping. The other, the louder and more belligerent, covers his bleeding mouth and has a wound over his right eye. He also has a gun holstered at his waist.
Amid the onlookers are a handful of journalists who film the scene on handheld digital cameras. In other countries you might call them ambulance chasers, but in Cambodia they usually arrive well before the medics.
“He’s drunk,” says one of the reporters pointing to the belligerent man. “They always are. And look at his waist, he’s got a gun. He must be a cop.”
Soon a pair of stout blue-uniformed traffic police arrive to defuse the situation, and the journalists, sensing the action is over, get on their motos and leave.
Scenes like this play out practically every night across Phnom Penh, with reporters working from 6pm until 6am to fill a growing hunger for morning news.
Among them is Khem Visal, a 28-year-old reporter with the website Cambodia Express News, who spends most of his nights with a group of journalists based at a Kiwi Mart in Tuol Kork district. They wait there, sometimes for hours on end, for something to happen. Surrounded by bottles of water, cans of Red Bull and walkie-talkies, they pass the time chatting, playing on their smartphones or watching movies.
Last Friday night, wearing all black and solid boots, Visal kept his two walkie-talkies and two mobile phones within reach at all times.
“We get our information from the walkie-talkies, radio and sometimes we get a call from sources, like police and friends,” he said.
Occasionally, they might cover a fire, burglary or assault, but their stock in trade is in traffic accidents. The footage they film is often graphic: mangled cars, motos and people.
There is the occasional light-hearted moment: a few weeks ago, a report came over the walkie-talkie that an earth-moving truck had toppled over. It turned out the “truck” was a child’s toy.
“The police officer had forgotten to turn off his walkie-talkie and we’d overheard him talking about his child,” said Heng Sovanmara, 24, who works for MSJ Online News.
“He was as surprised as we were when we arrived at his house.”
But mostly the job is gruesome. Mara, who also dressed in black, recalled being terrified the first time he filmed an accident.
“I just drove there as fast as I could, trying not to think about it, because I had to get there on time,” he said. “When we arrived, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t bring myself to film the broken and bloody bodies. The screaming was awful.
“I got used to it eventually, and now it doesn’t bother me.”
When asked what he liked about the job, Mara was concise: “Almost nothing”.
“About 80 per cent of people that we meet always feel angry with us,” he said.
“But even though they feel angry with us, when our report goes on the website, and lots of people read it and comment, then that’s exciting. It makes me feel pretty good about
According to most recent government figures, there were 4,840 accidents in Cambodia last year, killing 2,148 people and injuring 8,047. Police estimate more than 80 per cent involved drunk drivers after midnight, people heading home from nightclubs and beer gardens.
“Some nights – usually Friday and Saturday – are very busy with lots of car accidents,” said Visal. “Other nights are calm. Sunday is the quietest night.
“The busiest time is after 10pm, when people are coming home,” he added.
And there are more journalists than ever covering the night shift, according to Chhay Sophal, editor-in-chief of Cambodia News and also a board member of the Cambodian Club of Journalists.
“Competition on the morning news is becoming very fierce,” Sophal said in a telephone interview.
“Most of the television stations, they try to have new news in the morning, so they have to try to find news during the night time to present to the audience.”
Sophal said that car crashes were appealing for news producers because they were easy to cover and happened all the time.
But he said he would like more news organisations to focus on the root causes of the accidents rather than just sensationalising the results.
For the reporters themselves, the job can be dangerous.
On December 24, just after midnight, a group rushed to Wat Phnom – where one of three cars in a convoy had crashed into a parked vehicle – and began filming and taking photos.
The journalists claim that the men involved in the accident attacked them, tried to smash their equipment and fired three shots into the air with a gun. No one was injured.
One man was arrested at the scene but later released, claiming he was an innocent bystander.
“We have a lot of problems because of the rich and powerful people who are drunk,” said Visal, who was one of the journalists involved. “They don’t want us to take pictures. They threaten us and sometimes have guns.
“That’s why we travel in groups, for our safety.”
Sophal, from the Cambodian Club of Journalists, said that the public had to understand freedom of the press and their duty to cover incidents in the public arena.
But he added that journalists should act ethically and respect the privacy of ordinary individuals.
“If they race the car or are drunk, it’s not privacy, it’s a traffic law violation,” he said.
“But accidents always happen to every person. Journalists should not use personal issues to make big news. TV time should focus on many other issues.”
He said another big ethical problem was reporters who used their positions to extort money.
Mara, the reporter for MSJ, gave an example from Monday night, when he encountered a former colleague who had been fired but kept his media accreditation. The ex-reporter was taking photos of people after they were pulled over by the police and threatening to publish them unless the motorists paid him money.
Mara said he took the man’s press pass but declined to name him publicly in case he faced retribution.
“It makes me very angry that another reporter would do this,” he said. “It reflects badly on all of us.”
And it’s not just the reporters who behave badly. Editors and top executives sometimes quash coverage of the rich and powerful in exchange for money or out of loyalty.
“Sometimes it happens that the newsroom managers … know each other or are friends with the powerful or rich,” explained Sophal. “They say: ‘We are friends, so do not [report on this].’ So they close the issue.”
One journalist, who asked not to be named for fear of his safety, said he had been ordered to keep silent on the incident at Wat Phnom.
“Journalists are supposed to hold the corrupt to account and improve the justice and fairness of society,” he said.
“But how can we do that when we are the ones who are corrupt? Who is going to hold us to account?”
In the mornings, by about 6am, the journalists have gone back to their offices and filed their stories – uploading videos and photos to go on the morning news bulletins – and are having breakfast before heading to bed.
Sovann Rithy Kin, a 24-year-old who has been working the night shift since he was 19, wears a flat cap, Converse All-Stars, a shirt two sizes too big and ripped jeans a size too small. His friend says he dresses like a gangster, not a journalist.
Kin said that he worked the night shift for the Cambodian News Channel so that he could help his family during the day and study English in the afternoons.
“One day, I’d like to be a journalist in a Western country, like Australia,” he said.
When asked how many dead bodies he’s seen, he replies: “More than I can count.”
“It doesn’t bother me anymore.”
He said the night-shift reporters did an important job, informing the general public of the dangers of drunk driving and disobeying road rules.
But he said he wanted to do more, and expose the injustices in Cambodian society.
“I see so much corruption every day,” he said. “I wish I could tell people, but I’m scared of what might happen to me.”