Like all good salesmen, Keam Marithya believes in his product and claims his customers
do likewise. Having studied engineering in Vietnam for five years, Keam returned
to Phnom Penh only to find there was little demand for his new qualifications. Undeterred,
however, he quickly spotted a demand in an entirely different field.
"During Pol Pot times people were cut off and isolated; now they want to know
what is happening in the world," Keam said, adding, "Most Cambodians have
not seen the things in Western countries like robots and people going to outer space.
People were eager to know more about science stories and strange stories."
Keam decided he would help "educate" the people, fill the gap in their
knowledge and, not least of all, earn a living. The Peace Plan assisted him in his
endeavors, he said. "Before we didn't have so many newspapers and people didn't
like them because they belonged to the government and often they were not true. Now
with the neutral political environment there's free writing and the people are interested
in Khmer newspapers," Keam said.
Capitalizing on this new found interest Keam started up the bi-weekly Around the
World newspaper in Dec. and quickly followed with the monthly Science and Nature
in Jan. Whether the papers are actually "educating" people or not is open
to debate but there's no arguing that Keam is earning a decent living. "Around
the World" has a print run of 4,000 and a newstand price of 450 riels a copy.
Each issue quickly sells out leaving Keam with a handsome profit of between 400,000
and 500,000 riel. With two issues a month and further proceeds coming from his second
newspaper, Science Stories and Strange Stories have proved to be considerably more
lucrative than a 40,000 riel a month engineering job.
Keam's "educational" newspapers bear a marked similarity to the array of
papers that can be found in front of the check-outs in American supermarkets. In
fact, a lot of the stories come from those same papers. Keam has two employees who
translate most of his material from Thai and Vietnamese magazines which in turn "lift"
their stories from the U.S.'s copious quantities of "Alien Teddy Ate My Hamster,"
and "Elvis Cleaned Our Windows-Mom Died Of Shock" style of tabloid.
Keam seemed unaware of America's pathological obsession with the defunct, rotund
king of rock and roll and persistent reports of his death-defying whereabouts. But
on the subject of defying death's sting, he said that Around The World had just carried
a story on a resurrection. "It was about a person who died and rose again in
Brazil's Amazon forest." He explained he had no reason to doubt the story: "The
Amazon forest is the biggest in the world and according to history strange things
have always happened to the people there."
And, like one of the issue's other stories about a baby being born with wings in
India, "there are pictures as proof," he said.
While stories on obese, old Elvis have not yet been identified as staple news fare,
unidentified flying objects have already captured considerable column inches. And,
according to one recent story, aliens captured two lovers and whisked them away to
their nearby UFO, where, in an extraterrestial ceremony, they got married and were
subsequently dropped home.
But not all the stories have such happy endings. There's one about people who needed
"eye and heart transplants." Other people were kidnapped and killed to
supply the necessary organs, Keam stated. "This kind of story helps to educate
Cambodians to take care of their children because they have this problem in Western
countries," he said. "People also want to know about murders. These stories
are a lesson to let them know what is happening in other countries."
Asked if he was aware that a lot people considered papers similar to his own to be
sensationalist and often full of exaggeration and even lies, Keam responded that
he "did not hear Western people say that." He went on to question,"How
would they know? The papers are in Khmer." However, he then acknowledged that
the majority of his stories were originally published in English in a certain style
of newspaper. But, once again like the good salesman, he said the products speak
for themselves - the newspapers are selling.
"If there are lies the newspapers will not survive and maybe I will be forced
to shut them down," he said. If the number of similar papers in the rest of
the world is anything to go by, it seems unlikely that Around the World will go broke
and meet an early grave. As one Phnom Penh reader put it, "These exaggerated
stories are just a way for the newspapers to make good money."