The Phnom Penh Post’s weekend editorial about a recent BBC report that included an interview with former staff Mech Dara has drawn heated reactions from across the board among journalists, civil society organisations and members of the public.
The Post’s editorial came after its former reporter Mech Dara told the BBC that the newspaper was “silenced” and that he “could not take it anymore” after the company changed ownership. In fact, he worked for and received his salaries in full from The Post for nearly two consecutive years.
Before the editorial was published, Dara was given a chance to respond, but he did not answer repeated phone calls from The Post. On February 20, he was contacted successfully and given the opportunity to respond once again, but declined to do so.
In the editorial, Dara’s work history with The Post was highlighted in particular to show that the BBC piece written by George Wright was – all opinions aside – at least partly flawed on a factual basis and therefore not as credible as it may have seemed to uninformed readers.
At the end of our editorial, The Post included information that addressed Dara’s personal character and which subsequently drew criticism from a number of journalists including those who used to work with him.
David Boyle, a former editor at The Post, tweeted: “As a former editor of The Phnom Penh Post back when it did hard, investigative reporting, before the current owners trashed its legacy, I’m utterly disgusted by their attack on Mech Dara.
“Let’s be absolutely clear: he is a brilliant reporter and The Phnom Penh Post is an embarrassment.”
Jacob Sims, director of the International Justice Mission (IJM) who goes by the Twitter handle J Daniel Sims, tweeted the following: “In aiming to discredit Mech Dara’s work, [The Post’s] editorial concocts bogus claims; attacks his dogged concern for victims; and shames him for the fact that he endured abuse as a child. An exemplar of harmful propaganda.”
Although he did not choose to make an official response on-the-record, Dara posted a screenshot of The Post’s editorial, saying: “You should not allow rubbish to disturb your eyes. First come, first serve. I knew this would come.”
David Hutt, a British freelance journalist and columnist, tweeted on February 18, saying: “The Phnom Penh Post’s editorial on Mech Dara was beyond the pale. Utterly hypocritical and needless.”
His tweet drew a reply from indigenous rights advocate John Lowrie who said: “Totally unprofessional, not just as journalism but also in human resources management by not respecting due confidentiality. That too reveals what kind of outfit it is.”
The head of The Post’s human resources department, Pich Socheat, said Dara had tried to discredit the company through his comments. But as he understands Dara’s past contributions to The Post and because his contract with the company had ended in good faith, no action will be taken.
Citing The Post’s policy, which was also stipulated in Dara’s contract, Socheat said that all staffers are required to refrain from actions, whether related to their employment or not, that might adversely affect the company, its brand or business reputation.
Socheat said that Dara’s employment contract and the company’s internal regulations stipulate clauses regarding confidentiality about company matters.
“In the event that an employee of the company is terminated for whatever reason, the employee will be required to continue to keep such information confidential and not divulge it to any other person, firm or company,” states the contract.
Analysts said that while the BBC piece could be faulted for a number of reasons, there is hardly anyone in Cambodia able to hold them accountable for their claims – written in English – either because they do not read that publication or lack an appropriate platform or the necessary insight to respond to it.
In the eyes of local analysts, Cambodia has a troubling history of some foreign journalists using their access to media outlets to pursue their own political agendas and they routinely speak falsehoods or half-truths about the country and its people to discredit individuals or institutions with whom they do not agree.
Their modus operandi is to use local sources like Dara – who have often placed their hopes on these foreign friends for career advancement – and who are eager to please them by telling them whatever they want to hear.
Once their biases have again been confirmed, these foreign journalists rush off to report every word the Cambodian person spoke to them as fact without providing evidence or verifying their source’s information. They did not contact or provide The Post an opportunity to respond or clarify their allegations before publishing their report.
Huy Vannak, president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia (UJFC), said that Dara is no different from many other Cambodian journalists who have been victimised by foreign colleagues who tend to write slanderous stories based on their anti-government agendas.
“Foreign journalists should use their knowledge of the profession to help give guidance to the media sector in Cambodia. But I don’t see that they have been doing so. Instead they use issues in journalism as part of their agenda and as a tool to score points against the government, which has caused problems one after another,” he said.
Vannak said that in the case of the now-defunct Voice of Democracy (VOD), the online news outlet immediately tried to paint itself as a victim instead of correcting its mistakes, eventually leading to the revocation of its licence for “gross professional misconduct”.
Certain foreign journalists, Vannak added, saw an opportunity for an “easy byline” by writing “press freedoms declining” stories about Cambodia that fit a “political narrative” using Dara as their fodder for doing so.
“Mech Dara has been victimised three or four times already, not just once. He has been used by foreigners who keep giving him jobs that they care so little about. Now, the latest interview with him has caused a lot of hard feelings among fellow Cambodian journalists. We don’t know whether his quotes were honestly cited, but he was quoted in a way that brought controversy and negative attention to him.
“Moreover, he has been used as a tool to attack his former workplace and colleagues, as well as to attack society as a whole. So, he is now a victim once again. I don’t believe Dara himself has any hatred for his [former] employers or for society. It’s is just these foreigners’ agenda to turn Cambodians against their compatriots,” he said.
‘Need to defend reputation’
Pen Bona, secretary of state at the Ministry of Information, said that any individual and institution has the right to correct any information that is untrue that they think damages their reputation and integrity, and they can even file a complaint with the court.
“Like The Phnom Penh Post, which is a media institution, I think it had a right to respond through its editorial and it was correct to do so because they need to defend their reputation and integrity,” he said.
Bona questioned why some reporters linked the closure of the Cambodia Daily, the change of ownership of The Phnom Penh Post and the licence revocation for VOD together and concluded that press freedoms were being “silenced”.
“I don’t understand why they link all of this to politics. Paying taxes or changing ownership of any private institution is just a normal thing. A private entity cannot be always owned by one owner and it can be sold as the law permits. Why do they link that to politics?” he asked rhetorically.
Moeun Chhean Narith, a journalism lecturer at the University of Cambodia (UC), said it was regrettable if a journalist disregarded the ethics of their profession. Journalists, he said, must adhere to the truth in their reporting to earn public trust.
“I don’t blame this side or that side, but in principle, journalists must be mindful of any mistakes they make. It can be judged by the public that if a mistake can be made about a small matter, then what about complex issues? It negatively affects us and the nation if there are too many mistakes in our reporting,” he said.
He said that a big enough mistake made by one reporter can discredit all other in the profession as it can make the public lose trust or become suspicious about journalists in general.
“It is hard for a journalist to earn the public’s confidence as it takes time. If a particular journalist makes just one mistake, their whole reputation can be damaged or completely destroyed,” he said.
Chhean Narith said that those who are providing information as sources must also be clear about what information exactly they are providing and be precise with their facts.
Kin Phea, director for the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that a person with ethics, morality and virtue must keep matters confidential about their former workplaces to avoid defaming their own resume, no matter the reason for it.
“If one person worked and earned a salary from there for many years, then it is not suitable for that person to defame that company after their departure,” he said.
He said that some actions or decisions carried out by troubled persons were often linked to their past and reflected some kind of turmoil in their lives that had nothing to do with present-day events, as many Cambodians can attest given the dark period the nation went through under the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime.
“In short, all people should have virtue, morality and ethics for themselves, for other people including their former employers and for society and the nation. They should not regard their workplace as respectable when they work there and then try to claim it was rubbish after they’ve left,” he said, adding that both sides should nevertheless endeavour to end this tale here.
Analysts said Dara should have been grateful to his employer who gave him a job when he was unemployed, paid him decently for his work. He should not have been misled by certain foreign journalists and compromise his morale standard by telling lies about his employer. His statements in the BBC’s report could also be the basis for defamatory action against him.