T HE most intriguing addition to Cambodia's much-maligned local press has made an
influential debut - attracting government censure after publishing only three issues.
Forget News (Phlech Damneng) first appeared on Phnom Penh newstands early this month,
instantly entrenching itself as the most scandalous and slanderous newspaper in town.
It is also the only one apparently aimed at foreigners - for both a readership and
as an object of insult - particularly Australians.
Its inaugural issue featured 'stories' containing viotriolic allegations against
three Australians, Prime Minister Paul Keating, UN human rights representative Michael
Kirby and Ambassador to Cambodia Tony Kevin.
The allegations - all of a sexual nature - were written in rambling but blunt language
and appeared deliberately libelous, offensive and fantastic. In a variation on the
"fly on the wall" expression,the paper said its information came from lizards
on the walls of its targets' houses.
The four-page, A4 size newspaper - with each 'story' in Khmer and poor English -
named its publisher, Long Pha, and its editor but gave no office address.
The second edition of Forget News (apparently meaning news which is forgotten), selling
for 200 riels, emerged on newstands a week later.
A vulgar cartoon on the cover, there were further diatribes of a similar, but also
political, nature inside. The address of the paper, absent from the previous issue,
was listed on the front.
The newpaper was brought to the attention of the Australian Embassy. According to
a Foreign Ministry official quoted in Canberra, the embassy laid - and later withdrew
- a complaint to the Ministry of Information.
Forget News promptly turned out its third issue, an eight-page special, trumpeting
the news that it was under threat.
"Mr Ambassador, please do not push Cambodian to sue Cambodian," was one
headline, while a story inside said: "The teacher of democracy is fighting with
his own students of democracy now."
The paper - without being officially notified of any such action at that stage, by
its publisher's own admission - said it might be ordered closed because it was not
registered with the Ministry of Information.
It claimed that foreign-owned Cambodia Daily was not registered either, and said
"If Forget News will be closed down, do not forget about the Cambodia Daily."
Within several days, the Ministry of Information did indeed file a court application
seeking Forget News' closure because it was unregistered.
Ministry press department chief Leng Sochea said Forget News was right when it said
the Cambodia Daily was also not registered.
Cambodia Daily editors, however, strongly disputed that, saying they filed registration
papers more than a year ago.
Sochea, a Cambodia People's Party (CPP) member, told the Post he was looking forward
to the international reaction to Forget News' prosecution.
"I want to see how the human rights groups react to this.
"They used to blame us when we sued or suspended newspapers because of their
criticism of the government without proof, [or when] they drew the cartoon of the
Minister's wife as a pig, or wrote untrue stories...
"Now, this newspaper criticizes the human rights people, especially Kirby and
the Australian Ambassador. What are they going to do?"
Ambassador Tony Kevin, for his part, indicated he wasn't doing anything.
"I don't have any comment on Forget News. We think it's a piece of garbage,"
he said this week.
Asked about the Australian official's statement that the embassy had sought, then
withdrawn, a complaint against Forget News, Kevin said: "I have nothing to add
Meanwhile, at their cramped office across town, Forget News' two staff appeared not
displeased at the fuss they had created.
"If my newspaper is a success, I might ask you to come to a party," joked
the newspaper's "director" (publisher) Long Pha.
He and editor Norng Sovannroath work out of an 'office' - a desk and a few chairs
in a space several meters wide in Sovannroath's house - in Stung Mean Chey quarter
on Phnom Penh's outskirts. On the desk sits a personal computer, laser printer and
hard disk drive.
Pha and Sovannroath welcomed the Post , providing 7-Ups and cigarettes, and sat down
to answer questions. Their replies were less than frank.
"You are also a journalist, you will understand there are some things I cannot
reveal," said Pha.
A former journalist on the CPP newspaper Pracheachon and at Cambodia National Radio,
Pha has previously started two other now-defunct publications. Sovannroath is a medical
student and pharmacist who writes on the side.
Pha said he started his paper with three aims - to stop foreigners' "interfering
in Cambodia", encourage Khmers to love and help their country, and to make Forget
News "famous" abroad and in Cambodia.
Denying he was particularly anti-Australian, he said: "It's not only Australia.
Many foreign people are doing something wrong. This time I start with Australia."
Describing himself "a nationalist but not an extremist",
he said he did not insult all foreigners, only those who have done "inappropriate"
On Kirby, he said the human rights representive was only concerned with "the
prisoners" and not "the situation in the countyside, the war or trafficking
Told that Kirby had made dozens of human rights recommendations about rural poverty,
insecurity and child exploitation, Pha said that was just talk.
Pha and Sovannroath, smiling at each other as questions were asked of them, grew
increasingly circumspect and gave only half-hearted replies.
They neither denied nor admitted that their stories were untrue and designed to provoke
a foreign reaction.
Pha, asked about speculation a government or political figure was funding the newspaper,
replied: "That is only rumor. Some people say that some newspaper is supported
by a political party, and they might say that our newspaper is supported by the government
or an NGO."
But he said Forget News had "no support by any political party or individual."
On whether he was a member of any political party, he said: "That is not something
you should ask about as a reporter. That is personal."
He said he funded the newspaper himself, using computer equipment he had from a former
newspaper he started and a photocopier.
He believed his Forget News could be a "great success" if it was "supported
by the readers", but didn't appear too concerned if it was suspended or closed.
"I'm not sure what will happen to my newspaper. I don't know whether it will
be closed down," he said, laughing.
In which case Long Pha might yet go down as the first newspaper publisher in Cambodia
put out of business with a smile on his face.