Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ten years after

Ten years after

Ten years after

The last ten years feels like an eternity.

Little did I know way back in October, 1991, when I sat in the then-Samaki Hotel's

ramshackle restaurant and asked if they had any newspapers-only to be told 'aaaht

eeh, aht minh kaset dteee'-that I would be sitting in Phnom Penh in July, 2002 trying

to distill what it means to have published 263 issues of a newspaper called the Phnom

Penh Post.

One thing I can say without hesitation after a decade in this media whirlwind: each

issue was a labor of love and, at the same time, a pain in the you-know-what.

The years seem to have gone by in a blur; at the very least I now need eyeglasses-two

pairs in fact, one to read this text at a 20 point font size and another to try and

make out faces across the street.

Old hands from the UNTAC days occasionally come through town. I now have a legitimate

excuse for why I can't recognize them. Why I can't remember people's names is another

issue altogether.

The idea for the paper was simple. The UN was coming to town with thousands of

people and bucket-loads of money that they would splash like water on a parched rice

field. I needed a job, so why not create my own. And journalism seemed like an appealing

new career twist-all the hacks I'd met during my two years in Bangkok were filled

with energy and had great tales to spin. There was nothing in English to read in

Cambodia so why not give it a go.

When then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, as President of the Supreme National Council,

gave me the green light in January, 1992 to start a paper, I thought to myself "Oh

my God, what the %#&* do I do now?"

The idea drew interest like the streetlights near the riverfront attract bugs

at night.

Kathleen (Hayes) O'Keefe was keen from the get go. Nate Thayer, my first new friend

in town, and Sara Colm, our first employee, said they would help out. It snowballed

from there.

The list of people who chipped in to make the Post whatever it is reads like a

Who's Who from recent Cambodian history. I went through each and every back issue

from Day 1 to collect the names of full-time staff, photographers, freelancers, contributors

and the like. The 467 individuals culled from a decade of Posts are cited with honor

and gratitude on page 10 of this supplement and I would salute them one-by-one if

there were space.

If I had the kernel of an idea, all these folks helped fill in the blanks. Many

of them contributed time, energy, ideas, photos and copy for free-just for the thrill

of being involved in what was perceived as a good thing, a Mom and Pop newspaper

run on a shoe-string budget in a troubled land with a shoot-from-the-hip management

style that succeeded in spite of itself.

I'd list advertisers too if we had the space because without them the paper would

have died an early death. But their numbers run nearer to 1,000. For all you folks

out there who have had the pleasure of dealing with our legions of Advertising Managers,

please know that we are indebted to you for your confidence and support.

In the early years the Post flew like the wind, burning the candle at both ends

while digging up stories that kept readers glued to the page.

It's almost impossible to imagine now-and thinking about it makes me weary-but

for the first 130 issues deadline day was a 24-hour grueling ordeal. We'd start at

8am Tuesday morning and burn on through the day-cranking out copy, editing and whatnot-on

into the night and then until sunrise. At which point either Kathleen or I would

drag ourselves onto a plane and head for the printer in Bangkok, only to show up

bleary-eyed, suffering caffeine overload with nerves rattled to the bone. With the

paper proofed and printed, we'd hump 20 boxes of Posts back to Don Muang, trundle

them through the X-ray machine and load them on a flight to Phnom Penh as extra luggage,

arriving back home near-certifiably brain dead.

July 1997 forced us to sort out a printer in Phnom Penh and, fortunately, a bit

more reason has been introduced into our publishing schedule. My staff now have the

luxury of seeing me start to grumble if we can't get the paper done by 6:30pm Thursday


Putting some of the in-house horror stories aside, the more important question-What

does it all mean?-still looms large. One would think that after a decade, and having

been asked this question during at least 100 interviews from colleagues in the press,

I'd have a stock reply.

I don't.

I know the textbook theory stuff: press digs around, serves as watchdog, writes

about problems, informs readers, wheels turn, debate is fostered, government or civil

society responds, the world progresses.

Simple, right?


Nothing, it seems, is or will ever be that simple in Cambodia.

Has the Post made a difference in the last ten years? Very hard to say.

Because of the Post, have things changed for the better? Almost impossible to

quantify, at least from my perspective, but things have gotten better, perhaps in

spite of the Post.

There are a few things I know for sure from running a paper for so long. You can

never satisfy all readers all the time, and you can never please the government unless

you're willing to produce a paper along the lines of the (R.I.P) Cambodia Times.

Another thing I know for sure is that in running a paper like the Post you are

bound to make enemies in all quarters. I was definitely naïve on this score

at the onset. Little did I know that I would be accused of all kinds of erroneous

suppositions, from trying "to destroy the Kingdom," being "pro Khmer

Rouge," "anti-Funcinpec," "a US government stooge," "anti-CPP,"

to "creating political instability."

The list goes on and on, the people who refuse to talk to me is extensive, and

the number of times someone at an official reception has discreetly turned away to

avoid being seen chatting to me are countless.

People are afraid of this newspaper, which still to this day surprises me, and

I don't believe that fear is a function of the Post's particular brand of journalism.

I dare to say that the Post has tried to maintain the highest reporting standards,

that we try to be balanced, to get it right, and to stick to the facts. Call it human

nature if you want, but the Kingdom is not alone as a place where many people have

secrets they prefer to keep hidden from the prying eyes of journalists. I doubt this

will ever change which means that our job will never be an easy one.

And the bottom line, at the end of the day, is that I have always been willing

to run rebuttals and responsible comment pieces from anyone who feels he or she has

an ax to grind with what the paper publishes. I keep hoping that more critiques from

readers will show up at our door. They are always welcome (and not only for the reason

that they help us fill the paper for free).

On the brighter side, I can say that many in government have moved-off the record-from

being antagonistic to the Post to a position of tolerance, if not grudging admiration.

I've been told by civil servants from all factions on numerous occasions that the

Post is viewed as a reliable source of information in an environment where accurate

news and analysis is often hard to come by, especially that concerning the activities

of the government itself.

In a more personal vein, I've seen many eager but untrained Khmers pass through

the doors of the Post and, with some hands-on experience under their belts, move

on to a variety of other challenging (and better paid!) career opportunities. And

no one should forget how steep the uphill battle has been and will continue to be

in the Human Resource Department given the wreckage of the KR years and their aftermath.

I remember fondly one particular incident back in 1992. I was proofing a story

by one of my Khmer reporters and the quotes looked-how shall I put it-unbelievable.

I asked my guy, "Did this man really say this?" "Well, no," came

the innocent reply, "I just made them up." With a smile I politely explained

that rule number one in journalism is that you can't make up quotes. He got the point-quickly.

Over the years it seems that the most common complement offered to the Post is

that it stands as a record of current Cambodian history. The first cut, so to speak,

of recent events.

Prime Minister Hun Sen was spot on the mark when he replied to a Post request

for a comment on the 25th anniversary of the KR takeover of Phnom Penh. "History

is history and cannot be changed," the Prime Minister wrote.

The only history the Post was determined to make was being the first independent

paper in any language on the streets of Phnom Penh since the fall of the KR, and

that was a function of a small spat with the cheeky competition which followed three

days later.

As for the rest, our challenge remains to report what others do and say and do

our utmost to get it right. The people of this Kingdom deserve nothing less.


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