Editor in Chief Pierre Gillette could not have chosen a better—or worse—day to turn his newspaper Cambodge Soir into a daily.
Published three times each week since its launch on May 9, 1995, Gillette had decided at the beginning of 1997 to publish daily starting from July 8 of that year.
But on July 6, 1997, the uneasy coalition between CPP and Funcinpec culminated in street battles throughout Phnom Penh, and Gillette found himself without his usual printing house, shut down because of the factional fighting.
Overnight, the newspaper staff changed its format from tabloid to A4 copy paper so that pages could be photocopied.
As a daily, Cambodge Soir was able to report regularly as events unfolded.
However, for several weeks, the paper had to be photocopied every day in order to come out.
This incident in the life of a newspaper in Cambodia is mentioned in Gregoire Rochigneux’s introduction to the book “Cambodge Soir, Social Chronicles of a Country Through Daily Life,” launched in Phnom Penh on Oct 5 to mark the 10th anniversary of the paper.
Rochigneux, a journalist at Cambodge Soir from 1995 to 2002, has compiled with Gillette a series of stories that have appeared in the paper during its decade in print.
Irasec, the French acronym for “research institute on contemporary Southeast Asia,” has published the collection. Rochigneux is deputy director of the institute based in Bangkok.
In addition to the newspaper’s anniversary, Irasec was prompted to publish the book because of the upcoming Khmer Rouge trial, Rochigneux said.
While some recent books on Cambodia cover an array of topics, the great majority of publications continue to focus on the Khmer Rouge era and the genocide, he said.
“We felt that it would be unfortunate if the Khmer Rouge trial began without a book having tried to take stock of the situation in the country more than 25 years after the fall of the genocidal regime,” Rochigneux said.
“I cannot believe that Cambodia has been stuck in ‘Year Zero’ [as Francois Ponchaud has called his book on the Khmer Rouge to describe the destruction that regime had caused].
“Cambodia has gone through tremendous upheaval since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, even though it remains deeply affected by those bloody years,” Rochigneux said.
In fact, the 222-page book, printed on glossy paper and illustrated with black-and-white photos published in Cambodge Soir over the years, starts with a section on “Khmer Rouge Trauma,” with an introduction by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh.
The book includes stories on events as well as their effects on people. For example the first story is the April 20, 1998, article on the death of Pol Pot. The headline states: “After a ‘Natural death,’ Pol Pot’s incineration leaves its victims without justice.”
The project started two and a half years ago and from the start, Rochigneux and Gillette had agreed to make this book a social portrait of the country rather than strictly a political or economic account of its development over the last 10 years, Gillette said.
This reflects the newspaper’s philosophy, he said. While the press must report on comments from politicians, international organizations or NGO representatives, Gillette said, “they also must cover people so that they are not just a line of statistics.”
Newspapers must show people’s reality, give them a face and a voice in the course of events that affect them, he said.
With this in mind, Rochigneux and Gillette agreed on five themes to address, which made the job of going through 10 years of newspapers—not electronically archived due to a lack of funds—easier, said Rochigneux, who compiled the stories with the help of Gillette and the paper’s editorial team.
The section entitled “Land” includes stories on victims of land grabbing, such as an analysis published from March 14 to March 16, 2003, with the headline: “Land grabbing has become an alternate method for land acquisition.”
Stories in the section on “Poverty” talk of people being ruined by the exorbitant rates of moneylenders; villagers coming to Phnom Penh to seek politicians’ help; and Cambodians being at the mercy of employers as they work illegally in Thailand.
In his introduction to the section on “Youth,” Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Development mentions the heavy responsibilities—even etched in the Constitution—put on young Cambodians who are expected to care for their parents and the elderly.
He also points out how wealthy people spoil their children, shielding them even when they turn to crime.
The section on “Beliefs and the Divine” begins with anthropologist Fabienne Luco explaining how Cambodians mix Buddhism, ancestral religions and magic with no difficulties. Topics range from a woman in 1999 caring for a python she believes is her dead husband, to conflicts in the Buddhist community in 1998.
Olivier de Bernon, a researcher with the Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient in the country since 1990, says in his preface to the book that “chronicles of the terrible daily poetry of the Khmer enable [readers], if not to profoundly grasp their fear and hopes, at least to understand the direction in which they are heading.”
The book is now available in bookstores.