It was January 1992. Two men were drinking and talking in their rattan chairs
on the verandah of the Renakse Hotel, and invited me over. One of them, Nate, introduced
the other to me by saying: "This is Michael. He's going to start the first English-language
newspaper in Cambodia."
A few conversations later I found myself in the managing editor's chair of the
Phnom Penh Post.
I had just moved to Cambodia to work as a stringer for the San Francisco Examiner
after finishing the better part of a decade in San Francisco's Tenderloin district,
where I had edited the neighborhood newspaper, the Tenderloin Times. The paper was
published not only in English but in Khmer, Lao, and Vietnamese to serve the inner
city's booming refugee population.
By abandoning the uncertainties of freelance journalism for the even more risky undertaking
of helping to start up a newspaper in Cambodia, I joined a team of three: Michael,
Kathleen, and Chap Narith. Despite the scarcity of staff persons on the masthead,
there was plenty of support around town for the newspaper in the early days.
It seemed that just about everyone wanted to get something published in the first
issue, with several of the local hacks competing for who was going to pen the gossip
column, now institutionalized as The Gecko. Soon enough the Post was able to hire
some reporters, with some of Cambodia's best journalists coming on board that first
year, including Mang Channo, Moeun Chhean Nariddh, and Ker Munthit.
This was Cambodia before its first national elections, before the blossoming of
an independent press, before a quarter-million refugees had been repatriated from
Thai refugee camps. It was a place where you couldn't count on having electricity
every day, even in Phnom Penh; where curfews were often imposed in the city at night,
and where you took a chance of soldiers leveling their rifle or rocket launcher at
you if didn't slow down for a checkpoint on the provincial highways.
International relief workers had only recently moved their offices from cramped
quarters in the Monorom and Samaki (Le Royal) hotels to individual villas in Boeung
Keng Kang. No one had mobile phones and getting through on a landline was difficult.
The option was often a "human phone call": one visit to set up an appointment
with a source and a second one to conduct the actual interview. Sending an international
fax was problematic; email non-existent.
Putting out the first issue of the Post was very, very difficult. After Michael
found an office for the Post, monks from Wat Botum were asked to come bless the newspaper
and new offices. Shortly after the robed ones flicked holy water over all the new
computer equipment one of us-I won't say who-mistakenly plugged the laser printer
into the wrong voltage, destroying it.
A new printer-and stories-arrived just in time for us to publish the first edition
in advance of our main competition, the Cambodia Times, making the Post Cambodia's
first English-language paper to publish since 1975.
Setbacks that seemed huge at the time-brownouts and blackouts, equipment failures,
bureaucratic obstacles in getting government approval to publish-were soon but dim
memories as we slogged through rubber deadlines and all-night production binges.
Like many, I have a visceral memory of those first days and nights at the Post:
the generator chanka-chanking away 23 hours a day, the noise ricocheting up the concrete
stairway of the office to fill the entire building-and our crania-with sound; working
during the peak of the hot season with the windows closed to keep the racket out
and the smoke from several chain smokers in.
Newsgathering got only slightly easier after UNTAC arrived. Our press passes entitled
us to ride the UN's Russian helicopters and C-130 transport planes for free, enabling
day trips to Preah Vihear or Koh Nhek, but few of us traveled after dark if we could
help it. Journalists gathered for press conferences by Khmer Rouge officials at the
compound next to the Palace (now the site of Kantha Bopha hospital), or for UNTAC
spokesperson Eric Fault's noon-time briefings, where UPI reporter Sue Downey pecked
furiously away on her laptop as others dozed off their hangovers.
In the evenings the draw for journalists and UN workers was the No Problem Café
or the Gecko Bar. This was Phnom Penh before the FCC and the Lucky Market; a time
when the city's present-day restaurant district across the "Japanese Bridge"
was a deserted muddy strip, accessible only by boat because the bridge was still
shattered from a sapper raid during the war.
This was a time when the Post's offices housed not only computers, desks, and
filing cabinets but also some of the paper's most important contributors and sources.
Nate Thayer lived there, as did Michael, Kathleen, and Steve Heder. Foreign war correspondents
from other eras often slung hammocks on the roof when they came to town, along with
Montagnard leaders from North Carolina, who had come to meet FULRO fighters who had
surrendered to the UN in Mondolkiri. Coming to work some mornings I'd see Khmer Rouge
cadre squatting in the front yard of the office, waiting to talk to Nate.
While Cambodia-and the Phnom Penh Post-have both changed dramatically in the last
decade, the reckless but gutsy vision that gave birth to the paper still remains.
Let's hope that the Post remains among the vanguard of the country's press scene
for another ten years.
óSara worked at the Post in 1992 as the paper's first managing editor. She
is now a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.