Time really flies. It has been almost 20 years since I left The Phnom Penh Post, but it feels like it was just yesterday. As a former reporter for The Post, I am delighted to contribute to this celebration of the paper’s 29th anniversary.
Now, in this age of social media and viral “news” that misinforms more often than it informs, I am hopeful that The Post still has an important role to play in providing balanced stories to readers both in Cambodia and further abroad.
I started at The Post in 1996 as an office manager. My role then was just to ensure there were enough notebooks, pens, tape recorders and other supplies to keep the place up and running, but I also volunteered to summarise the police blotter – one of The Post’s most popular columns.
Office manager was certainly not my favourite job in the world, but I quickly discovered that being a reporter definitely was, or soon would be, if I had my way.
Ever since I was a little boy growing up in a remote village in Svay Rieng province – back when there was no radio and no TV, never mind the internet – I had wanted to be a storyteller.
I saw people holding microphones on stage at gatherings and festivals and I wanted to do that too. When I played with the other boys and girls, I was usually holding a stick as my microphone and telling the other children stories or reporting to them on events both real and imaginary.
I looked for any opportunity to fulfil my dreams of becoming a reporter. As office manager, I watched how the reporters at The Post chose their topics and wrote their stories and I talked to them about journalism every chance I got and asked them for advice on how to become a reporter.
In mid-1997, my opportunity arrived. Michael Hayes, the former publisher of The Post, asked me to go with him to Choam Ksan district of Preah Vihear province – a place where active fighting was underway between the Khmer Rouge and the Coalition Government forces.
It was a wonderfully exciting experience and when we returned from the battlefield he agreed to sponsor me through a one-on-one crash course in journalistic skills. I became an apprentice to Moeun Chhean Nariddh, to whom I will always be so grateful for the excellent training he gave me that helped me finally realise my dream of becoming a full-time professional reporter.
Given my background and my childhood spent in the war zones between the US and Vietnam in the early 1970s and then between Pol Pot and Vietnam in the mid-70s – and then the nature of my first trip out into the field with Michael Hayes – my first beat was reporting on security, war, political violence and armed conflict – particularly on the Khmer Rouge, but also on the factional fighting that took place in July of 1997.
When the civil war ended, my focus shifted gradually to reporting on topics like human rights, social and political issues, and ultimately ended up with a focus on agricultural and environmental topics.
I left my position as a journalist in mid-2002 and became an external affairs officer at one of the UN agencies in Cambodia. I am still very thankful to The Post, Michael Hayes, Kathleen O’Keefe (who, sadly, passed away in 2014) and to all The Post editors and journalists who gave me opportunities and supported me throughout my career in journalism.
So, what can I take from journalism and apply in my current role as a World Bank Cambodia external affairs officer? On this 29th anniversary of The Post, I would like to share just three of the many lessons I learned as a reporter with The Post’s readership, but especially with any media colleagues and journalists who may be interested.
First, you must build trust and have reliable sources. For journalists, building trust and having reliable contacts is the only way to get accurate information. When sources trust us, they feel safe talking and sharing information.
Trust here means you must respect your sources and safeguard their rights, security, confidentiality and conditions, among others.
In my current work I have to similarly build trust among diverse networks that include government officials, the private sector, civil society organisations, the media, young people and rural communities.
Second, shatter the old notions about journalists being enemies or troublemakers. When people hear a reporter is calling or asking questions, they are like, “Oh my god! There must be some problem! We’re in trouble!” They panic because they may think that journalists only come around when there is a negative issue to expose or exploit in a sensational manner.
Actually, media workers can give people the opportunity to clarify issues that are important to them and offer them a channel for getting positive news out about people’s accomplishments or achievements as well.
Professional reporters are not anyone’s enemy. They are highly-skilled investigators who act as conduits for gathering and disseminating information out to the public.
Third, build a balanced point of view. This is important. When you write your story from a balanced angle, it will lead you to think about balanced views when performing other tasks.
Part of my work in external affairs involves providing advice to the management. When your management receives unbiased views and gets a full picture of a given situation, they can make informed decisions that better support the country and serve its people.
When you lead consultation meetings, for example, having a balanced view will enable you to think broadly about who should be invited to these consultations. Then you will think of representatives from all walks of life – rural communities, vulnerable groups, women and children, LGBTI community members and so on.
Once again, I emphasise my fervent hope for a future where The Post can continue playing an important role in providing balanced and factual stories about Cambodia.
My best wishes go to all of the staff at The Post. Stay safe!
Bou Saroeun is currenly external affairs officer at the World Bank Cambodia office. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own and not representative of any institution or organisation.