With the exception of the tumultuous 1970s, it could be argued that the past 25 years of Cambodian history have seen more momentous changes than any other period since the nation won its independence in 1953.
Since The Phnom Penh Post was founded in 1992, the country transitioned to a fledgling, albeit flawed, multi-party democracy; it finally closed the chapter on its decades-long civil war; and just last year, the World Bank upgraded Cambodia from a low-income country to a lower-middle income one.
Cambodia’s media hasn’t been immune to these changes either. While much of the country’s mass media remains aligned with, or influenced by, the ruling party, its English-language press – The Post and Post Khmer included – has come to enjoy unfettered freedom to report on pressing, and often controversial, issues as we see fit.
In fact, in many ways, the evolution of The Post closely tracks the evolution of Cambodia itself. Founded in 1992 as a bi-weekly publication, The Post largely served the huge influx of foreigners that poured in along with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which administered the country for nearly two years through Cambodia’s first democratic elections in 1993.
In 2008, just in time for another round of national elections, The Post went daily, seeking to serve an ever-larger appetite for up-to-date news. Just over a year later, in 2009, Post Khmer was launched to bring Khmer-language readers a level of editorial quality and independence missing from much of the market at the time.
Now, with the web – and social media in particular – firmly entrenched as many Cambodian and foreign readers’ news source of choice, The Post is still evolving, making a concerted push to bring readers news not only every morning, but as it happens. Our recent Commune Elections 2017 blog is probably the most visible example of this, and as events like Cambodia’s latest round of elections – and the even more closely watched elections to come next year – continue to shape the Kingdom’s history, The Post will redouble its efforts to bring its readers news when they need it.
This will involve challenges faced by news organisations worldwide – most notably, striking the difficult balance between being first, and being right – but it will also involve dealing with uniquely Cambodian challenges as well.
For one thing, access to information in Cambodia remains severely restricted, and obtaining documents – like drafts of laws and government statistics – that would be readily available in more mature democracies is often maddeningly difficult. The frustration associated with obtaining these essential materials is compounded in a digital news environment, in which the deadline isn’t this evening, but right now.
What’s more, despite the freedoms enjoyed by The Post in terms of its editorial discretion, uncertainties surrounding Cambodia’s oft-maligned courts still represent a major risk to news organisations. While our exacting editorial standards assure that our work stands up to the highest level of scrutiny, that is no guarantee of protection from arbitrary legal entanglements.
This has only become clearer in recent months, which have seen a vaguely worded media code of conduct, labelled a “code of censorship” by critics, issued by the National Election Committee and accompanied by threats to revoke violators’ licences; an arrest warrant for a Cambodian-American journalist who was accused of misrepresenting himself to obtain a politically sensitive interview; a court complaint against Cambodian and Canadian journalists over what appeared to be routine election coverage; and espionage charges for an Australian filmmaker, whose only crime appeared to be taking drone footage of an opposition campaign rally.
As we look forward to what the next 25 years have in store for Cambodia – and Cambodian journalism – it goes without saying that a free press holding those in power to account will only become more important if democratic institutions are to mature and the benefits of development are to be felt by all the country’s citizens.
One can only hope that the freedoms the press has accrued over time will be maintained, and indeed strengthened. But as the events mentioned above show, that is still far from certain.
One thing that is certain, however, is that The Post’s commitment to bringing its readers intelligent, in-depth and independent reporting will remain. We’re grateful for the trust our audience has put in our journalism in the last 25 years, and we’ll do everything in our power to maintain that trust in the coming 25.
Whatever direction Cambodia takes as it continues its evolution into a modern democracy, The Post will be there to cover it.