On April 26, 2012, Kevin Doyle, then editor-in-chief of The Cambodia Daily, received a phone call during his lunch break. It was from Phorn Bopha, a 27-year-old reporter who had ventured into the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province to investigate illegal logging.
“The soldiers have stopped us and they won’t let us go,” Bopha said, a growing agitation in her voice. Moments later Doyle heard the piercing cracks of two loud gunshots from an AK47 assault rifle. The line went dead.
Doyle didn’t know it at the time, but the gunshots he heard had entered the burgundy-colored Land Cruiser of Chut Wutty, a forestry activist who had dedicated himself to preserving Cambodia’s disappearing forests since 2001. One of the bullets ricocheted off his knee and entered his abdomen, killing him almost instantly. The shooting followed a verbal dispute with three soldiers guarding an illegal logging operation deep in the forest.
As Doyle put down the phone, he thought he had lost two of his reporters in the gun fire. He asked me — at the time executive editor at the Daily — to go with him into the mountains.
“I was sure they were all dead,” Doyle told me this week. “Seriously, I will never forget that moment. Even though they survived the Chut Wutty shooting, I still did not think they would make it out of the mountains alive as witnesses.”
It is memories like this one that came to mind when I learned that the Daily was shut down earlier this month.
“Killing the Daily and threatening to jail its owners signals a profound political shift” — Douglas Gillison, former editor of the Daily
On September 4, the Daily published its final edition after a battle with the government over a disputed $6.3 million tax bill. The paper’s owner, Deborah Krisher-Steele, said she considered the bill to be politically motivated and called for an audit.
“The power to tax is the power to destroy,” she said while announcing the paper’s closure.
* * *
The deadly Khmer Rouge regime came to an end almost 40 years ago. Since then, Cambodia has gone from a failed state emerging from genocide to a transitional democracy dependent on the West and its billions of dollars in aid money. But more recently, the nation has begun to stand on its own two feet thanks to an influx of foreign tourists and barrel loads of cheap loans from China.
It is in this context — coupled with a growing disenchantment for the country’s strongman prime minister, Hun Sen — that the Daily was forced out of business. Its closure is no small stain on the face of a region known for its high levels of government censorship (look at Laos and Vietnam) and slain journalists (look at the Philippines) rather than its press freedom.
And with its doors now shut, the sort of dogged reporting carried out that April day by Bopha and her reporting partner Olesia Plokhii, also 27 at the time, will only become rarer. As Doyle reminded me this week, he gave Bopha the green light to venture into the Cardamoms only to get her out of town. She was receiving threats in the wake of previous stories about Hun To, the nephew of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and his alleged links to an international drug smuggling and money laundering ring.
The Cambodia Daily’s newsroom in Phnom Penh | Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images
“Killing the Daily and threatening to jail its owners signals a profound political shift,” Douglas Gillison, my predecessor at the Daily, told me this week.
The precariousness of Hun Sen’s situation in next July’s election “should not be understated,” he added. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party doubled its score between 2008 and 2013, coming within about 4 percentage points of the CPP’s score and filling the streets with huge demonstrations.
On the same day the Daily printed its last edition, police arrested Kem Sokha, the opposition party’s leader.
“Hun Sen wants to win the election next year and he wants to absolutely ensure that victory,” said Rupert Abbot, a human rights lawyer who worked in Cambodia between 2008 and 2014, when asked why the prime minister shut down the Daily.
“I have no doubt, were he to lose the election, it is unlikely he will give up power. But he would prefer not to do it that way and avoid spilling blood.”
* * *
I left Cambodia at the end of 2013, frazzled after a five-year stint in the country during which I reported on illegal mining operations, corruption, the garment industry, sex trafficking and the impunity surrounding acid crime.
In 2009, I reported on the case of a woman whose arms were webbed together from her shoulders to her forearms with shiny scar tissue. Her husband’s former wife became jealous and doused her with acid while she slept.
I wrote about how Bangladesh had virtually wiped acid crime from its nation by introducing the death sentence for perpetrators of acid attacks and introducing strict regulations on the sale, use, storage, import and export of acid.
The following year, after growing public scrutiny from many corners of the free press, the government adopted its own acid law, dishing out life sentences for attackers. The Daily was similarly hard-hitting on issues such as land grabbing, child rape, drug trafficking and the labor rights of maids sent to Malaysia.
It is exactly this sort of public scrutiny that Cambodia is kissing goodbye to by closing the Daily.
The Daily was boot camp for bad-ass journos with a sense of adventure.
As Khy Sovuthy, a former court reporter at the Daily, put it this week when I reached out to him: “I think that the government should allow independent newspapers to publish because it is also a mirror of the good and bad things that happen in a society.”
The Daily was set up by Bernard Krisher, the now 86-year-old former Newsweek reporter, who ran the place with an iron fist right up until he sold his assets to his daughter Deborah earlier this year. Krisher was an old-fashioned print journalist who resisted putting content online for years, while the rest of the media landscape gave their stories away for free.
He demanded loyalty and scorned his rival, the Phnom Penh Post, whose Australian owners once threatened to wipe the Daily off the face of the planet. Cross Krisher’s path or admit you were looking for a job at a competitor and you would be out the door before you could say “sticky rice.”
On September 7, Krisher wrote a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking him to spare his daughter’s paper and let him take responsibility for the legal battle over the unpaid tax bill.
Krisher’s old-school approach to hard-nosed journalism made the Daily a tough place to work.
Reporters and editors at the Daily agreed to long hours for little money — whether they were working on an update on a long-running land dispute in Ratanakkiri province or an 11-part series detailing an FBI investigation into a 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally.
Some people flamed out after a year; others stormed out after too many late night calls from an angry editor. The Daily was boot camp for bad-ass journos with a sense of adventure.
* * *
For Cambodia, the death of the Daily marks the opening of yet another chapter in a long history of government attempts to clamp down on freedom of expression and members of the opposition.
For former Executive Editor Gillison, the demise of the Daily coincides with a moment of weakness for Hun Sen.
Prime Minister Hun Sen could have just inspired a new generation of ardent Cambodian journalists | Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images
“Even though it had a small local print audience, its reporting reverberated in concentric circles through the internet, and its staff were the most experienced in discovering and publishing the truth,” he said.
“Perhaps shutting down the little white paper nips many problems in the bud, at a time when Hun Sen, who has never taken his security for granted, feels most insecure.”
Whether or not Hun Sen has seen the end of the Daily is far from clear. The prime minister could have just inspired a new generation of ardent journalists in the country.
Bopha, who is now at Arizona State University doing a journalism fellowship, has nascent dreams of starting up a Cambodia Daily 2.0.
“We’ve been working together for years, and I’ve never seen anything like this during my job as a journalist,” she told me.
“What happens right now is the darkest time since I start to remember things in the country,” she added. “And I am not sure when it’s going to come back to normal.”
Simon Marks, a reporter at POLITICO, was executive editor of The Cambodia Daily from 2012 until 2014.