Shuttered Cambodia Daily Editor Jodie DeJong on Leader’s Promise to “Smash Teeth”

A government crackdown on the media and nonprofit groups in Cambodia has led to the demise of the 24-year-old Cambodia Daily, which was forced to cease operations on Sunday, Sept. 3. The paper’s staff, a mix of foreign and Cambodian journalists, worked on through to the end, reporting on the looming arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, accused of collusion with the United States. His arrest came the same day the Daily shut its doors.

The Phnom Penh-based paper, founded by American journalist Bernard Krisher in 1993, aimed to deliver independent news while training Cambodian journalists, and carried the motto “All the news without fear or favor.”

“I feel bad because, after the Daily is closed, we won’t have independent news to read anymore,” award-winning Cambodian reporter Aun Pheap told the New York Times in September. “After they close down all the independent newspapers and radio stations, no one will be able to print true information for the upcoming election.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration levied a $6.3 million bill against the paper for what it claimed was back taxes. Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer during that group’s brutal reign over the nation in the 1970s, has been in his position for 30 years, making him one of the world’s current longest-serving leaders. Sen labeled the paper as the nation’s “chief thief,” and said that it should “pack up and go” if it doesn’t want to pay the tax bill. The paper claimed it had been operating at a loss since 2008.

At least 15 radio stations have been either forced to close or stop broadcasting content by outlets including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The pro-democracy nonprofit National Democratic Institute, which had ties to the Democratic Party of the United States, was expelled from the nation.

Jodie DeJong was the editor of the Daily for less than six months before the shutdown. She worked for the Associated Press for 20 years as a reporter, news editor and bureau chief. She went on to the China Daily in Beijing for a year before joining the Cambodia Daily as managing editor in 2016, and became editor in April 2017. She spoke with SPJ from a beach in southern Thailand.

Photo by freelancer Omar Havana.

SPJ: How long have you worked at Cambodia Daily and how did you get started there?

J.D.: Just over a year. It was a long, circuitous route. Most foreigners who work at the Daily are in their 20s or early 30s. But I spent more than 20 years at the AP, as reporter, news editor and bureau chief, then a year in Beijing for China Daily before the Daily’s editor in chief hired me after a Skype interview while I was on vacation in Chengdu. I spent nine months as ME, then took over as editor in April.

What was it like being an outsider doing journalism in a third world country?

The wonderful thing about the Daily is that collaboration was at the heart of the newsroom. The Cambodian reporters are an impressive bunch, doing challenging work in difficult conditions, and for the paper’s 24 years, they patiently trained scores of foreign journalists in how the country works, the geography of the place, its people, its complex history. Phnom Penh is an easy, beguiling place to live, and the Daily was such an interesting place to work that it never felt like a hardship. It was fun and invigorating.

What’s next for you and other staff?

Do you know, not one of the foreign reporters and editors have left the country since the paper closed on September 4th? They still want to report about Cambodia, even though these are troubling and dangerous times. The Cambodian reporters also are eager to stay in journalism, but it could be more difficult for them to find jobs. The prime minister has come out against the Daily numerous times in the past year, and went so far as to describe the Khmer reporters as “servants of the foreigners,” so I worry about their prospects. As for me? I hope something interesting will come my way.

Why did the government shut you down? Was there a particular story that may have been the final straw?

The Daily was known for its fearless independent reporting, which included stories about corruption, human rights abuses, forced evictions, pervasive illegal logging, deforestation, patronage, fraud, abuse. So no, I don’t think there was one story that pushed the government into taking this action. Instead, there were several reasons, most importantly a critical election year and a pivot away from the West and to China, and all that entails, and of course the tax issue, that allowed the government to put a target on the paper.

Were you or other staff ever worried for their safety? Were you worried about being arrested? What protections did you have?

Yes, these were ongoing concerns. It’s been like that since the beginning of the Daily in 1993. During a recent beat meeting, the paper’s main political reporter told me, “I have story ideas that are dangerous to me.” And earlier this year, two of the Daily’s reporters were summoned to answer a complaint over reporting before the local elections in June. The questions they asked villagers in Pate commune were very basic, about why this commune was the only one to go to the opposition in Ratanakirri province in the previous local election, but the aftermath was anything but. Protections were few as the rule of law is not strong in Cambodia. But some groups had our backs in the lead-up to the Daily’s closure, including Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Project Journalists, rights group Licadho and the UNOHCHR, and I think that helped, psychologically, that people were paying attention and speaking out about what was happening.

What does this mean for other private companies and media companies in general in Cambodia?

Voice of Democracy, run by the Cambodia Center for Independent Media, was shut down. Numerous stations were barred from carrying VOA programming. U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia shut down, and the spokesman for the Information Ministry described its reporters as spies and threatened legal action if any continued to report in Cambodia. NDI was shut down and its foreign staff expelled. That the Daily could be forced to close over a bogus tax bill of 25 billion riel (about $6.3 million) after barely breaking even for the past 10 years has given companies pause. They are asking, “Is it safe to invest and do business in Cambodia?”

Do you expect civil unrest next year during the general elections?

Prime Minister Hun, already one of the longest-serving leaders in the world, said that 100 to 200 people might have to die in order for him to stay in power. The defense minister threatened to “smash the teeth” of political opponents. The government has arrested and jailed several ordinary people who criticized Hun Sen on Facebook. The crackdown on dissent has been severe and people are afraid. I’m not sure that democratic rollbacks will result in civil unrest under such conditions. 

How cautious should expats in Cambodia be as the nation heads into general elections in 2018?

The U.S. government issued a security warning for Cambodia last week, citing “rising tensions and anti-American rhetoric.” It urges U.S. citizens living or traveling in Cambodia to exercise caution, stay away from demonstrations and be vigilant about personal security. Seems like good advice for everyone.

What does press freedom mean in Cambodia, why does it matter, and what’s being done to protect journalists there?

There’s been a strong modern history of press freedom, which is why the Daily’s fate is such a cautionary tale. The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia is looking to provide hazardous environment training, for example. Still, there is not much anyone can do to protect journalists in such a climate. 

Do expat journalists in Cambodia have less to worry about than Cambodian journalists?

Yes, most certainly. Foreign journalists can be deported. Cambodian journalists, if arrested, have much less recourse.

The Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s has long drawn the interest of journalists. Was that something that drew you to Cambodia?

One of the Daily’s reporters was fascinated by the country’s history and came to Cambodia and covered the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders at the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) for the Daily, but it’s not what drew me to Cambodia.  

What advice would you give to anyone interested in moving to Cambodia, especially journalists?

To borrow a line from Game of Thrones: “The night is dark and full of terrors.” It’s going to be a very challenging year in Cambodia. Make sure you know what you’re doing, join the press club so you have a community to alert you to risks, employ smart, capable fixers. Have your “go bag” ready.

Tom O’Connell worked as a copy editor and writer for magazines in New York City for a decade after college, and is now based in Albuquerque, N.M., where he is a member of the SPJ-Rio Grande Chapter. He left the USA in September 2017 to pursue his longtime dream of living in Southeast Asia, and filed this story from Bangkok, Thailand. His current plan is to settle long-term in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His writing has appeared in Details, British Esquire, German GQ, and Entertainment Weekly. You can follow his work on Twitter.

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