When I first arrived in Cambodia in September 1993, one of my favorite pastimes was watching young newspaper sellers play a game with their flip-flops on the sidewalks of Phnom Penh. Newspapers tucked under one arm, the kids’ free arm would fling a flip-flop along the pavement in front of the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) or Lucky Market. The other kids roared with laughter – either with or at the flinger – and then small amounts of riel would change hands. My interest only deepened when I asked about the rules and seemed to receive a different answer from each child. Of course, the problem wasn’t the kids: years later I would often struggle to understand as my own kids explained things in their own roundabout, exuberant and often confusing way – in English.
Why do I bring this up? Because while one arm confused (and entertained), the other enlightened. Under that arm was The Phnom Penh Post, the only consistently reliable source of news in Cambodia. Published just once every two weeks, it was the paper of record in a country with a government that spewed disinformation and lies as a matter of policy – and a rumour mill so wild that Donald Trump’s tweets seem almost believable in comparison.
I remember how much I looked forward to each new edition of The Post so that I could find out what was really going on between Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen (they were enemies before they were pals, and pals before they were enemies once again) or Hun Sen and Chea Sim (a similar dynamic applied). The Post explained which officials were stuffing their pockets with money at what Cambodians jokingly called (though it was no joke) the Council for the Development of Corruption (CDC).
The Post was published on heavy newsprint and used bright, vibrant colour photos, which made it feel more like a magazine and something worth keeping. One of the most heartbreaking newspaper covers I’ve ever seen was the photo of the young female vendor whose legs were blown off by the cowards who threw grenades at the Sam Rainsy rally on March 30, 1997. I arrived at the bloody scene soon after the massacre, but it is the image of this woman, staring at the camera in shock as the life seeped out of her, that continues to haunt me.
The Post was so important to the public record that throughout my five years working in Cambodia, most of which I spent at the United Nations human rights office, I kept every issue – and often referred to them later to find a missing piece of information in the pre-Internet age. The Post wasn’t always right, and even it published some articles that relied too much on single sources or speculation. But it always acted in good faith and tried to print what it understood to be the facts.
It is hard to overstate the challenges of being an honest newspaper in the Cambodia of the 1990s. Today journalists and papers have to deal with the regular wrath and threats of Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). But during the FUNCINPEC-CPP coalition government they had two ruling parties and two prime ministers to contend with – Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen. In 1993, Ranariddh came to office claiming to be a believer in a free press, but he and his minions soon proved this was a fiction, regularly calling editors and reporters to harass and intimidate them; Hun Sen and the CPP never believed in a free and open media, and couldn’t seem to accept that the one-party state they ran in the 1980s had disappeared after UNTAC.
In the 1990s, many journalists were killed and beaten.
I’ll never forget going to Wat Langka after editor Thun Bun Ly was killed and watching in horror as a man in uniform arrived, put on rubber gloves, and reached into his body to extract the bullets, apparently to destroy evidence. He then got on the back of a motorcycle and drove off.
During this period, telephone threats to journalists were very common, including at The Post. Most were received by the lesser known but very brave Cambodian staff at the paper; many Cambodian journalists became my good friends – and heroes – over the years as I watched them wake up every day and do their jobs under constant threat. Michael and Kathleen Hayes, who founded The Post, editors like Matt Grainger and Pete Sainsbury, and reporters like Jason Barber (I’m not naming Cambodian staff as I don’t want to get them into trouble for being people I admire), backed up their Cambodian colleagues at every turn while continuously publishing critical stories and the more than occasional scoop.
Among the great journalism I remember from the period was the courageous and award-worthy reporting by The Post after the grenade attack, Hun Sen’s July 1997 coup, and the bloody 1998 election (the photos we received at the UN of the mangled and fileted bodies of CPP political opponents also still haunt me). This was principled, fearless journalism at its best.
The Post truly cared about Cambodians killed for political reasons. But, not least because of the character of the paper’s co-owner, Kathleen Hayes, it also showed that it cared just as much about the hope stolen from kids by a system more interested in extracting bribes from parents than educating children.
Sadly, while so much about Cambodia has changed for the better over the past 25 years, the country today remains mired in the same swamp of autocratic leadership, massive corruption, and violence. Good journalism remains as important now as it did when Michael and Kathleen founded the paper.
Brad Adams has been the executive director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) since 2002. Prior to his work at HRW, he was the senior lawyer for the Cambodia field office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He has also worked as the legal advisor to the Cambodian parliament’s human rights committee.