Fine Line Separates Activists, Citizen Journalists

When Sok Sreyneang goes into the forest, she goes looking for loggers.

Equipped with a smartphone, a knife, a notebook and pen, the 21-year-old is on a mission to put an end to the destruction of the woods that surround her hometown in Mondolkiri province.

“They are destroying the community forests and I am part of the community, so it is my job to stop them,” Ms. Sreyneang said on Wednesday in Phnom Penh, where she met with like-minded young people in a seminar organized by two local NGOs.

The self-appointed protector of the forests does not get paid for her work, which can be dangerous.

“The scariest thing is when I confront the people who are doing the illegal logging. They have guns and they could use it to shoot. I only have a knife, so I cannot fight the gun,” she said.

So Ms. Sreyneang treads lightly. She snaps photos, jots down details, and makes her way out of the forest, back to her home in O’Reang district, where she uploads her work to Facebook to be liked, shared and discussed by her online social network.

“The more people that know, the more something can change,” she said.

Ms. Sreyneang is just one of a growing group of tech-savvy youth who have embraced the spread of smartphones and social media to put local issues under the spotlight.

In a media landscape long dominated by state-controlled or government-friendly broadcasters, a number of citizens with smartphones and the will to go against the grain have become Internet sensations.

Perhaps the most prominent example is Thy Sovantha, 18, a high school student who rose to online fame by posting fiercely anti-government rants on her Facebook page in the lead-up to last year’s national election.

Her personal Facebook page, on which she often records and posts updates from the sites of opposition protests or clashes with government forces, now boasts more than 431,000 “likes.”

Shortly after the June election, and on the back of the wave of Facebook activism, the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) and the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) saw an opportunity to further disrupt the pro-government news landscape.

“I went onto Facebook and found some of the most outspoken people—activists, community leaders, union leaders—and I contacted them,” said Moses Ngeth, communications coordinator at CLEC.

“These are human rights defenders in the cyber age and we saw that with some basic training, they could learn to write short, simple pieces of news that could be posted online,” he said.

And so began the two organizations’ citizen journalist project.

In the past year, more than 80 people have been through a very basic training course in Phnom Penh with either CLEC or CCIM, with the aim of putting events from the furthest corners of Cambodia on the record.

“There were so many people posting online but what they said was not facts, it was emotions,” he said. “We taught them: see, hear, post—with no emotions.”

Although Ms. Sovantha’s model was an inspiration to many young Facebook users with a social conscience, CLEC and CCIM worked to create a more independent streak in the young activists.

“It is different to Thy Sovantha. She is a Facebook activist, a CNRP activist. I teach them to keep their emotions separate from the news, especially if they have ambitions to become real journalists in the future,” Mr. Ngeth said.

Nonetheless, the majority of the content produced by the young activists-cum-citizen journalists does not paint a positive picture of the government: Land grabbing, illegal logging and corruption are among the most reported issues.

As a result, the citizen journalists often face intimidation and threats, as well as difficulty in obtaining information. They also lack press credentials, which in many cases can be used to ward off threats from low-level officials.

At their gathering in the capital this week, the citizen journalists had one overwhelming concern—their safety. Everywhere they go, authorities ask for accreditation, and in its absence, often become dismissive, if not aggressive.

The problem is also pervasive in Phnom Penh, where authorities at protests around Freedom Park have been heard instructing security guards to beat people without press cards.

One student who has managed to circumvent that problem is Roth Chan Dany, 18, who records and shares her own news clips from protests and disputes around Phnom Penh.

Ms. Chan Dany, who blends her activism for the CNRP with her reports posted to Facebook, spent months being herded away from the front line of protests. But she recently obtained an ID card from her uncle, who works for an NGO.

“Without the card, everything is difficult,” she said. “When I wanted hot news, I had to watch from a distance.”

Ms. Chan Dany suggested that all citizen journalists should be granted press cards. Mr. Ngeth said that would be impractical.

“To issue so many press cards would ruin the name of journalists,” he said.

For this reason, CLEC has a rapid response team that offers legal consultation and even representation in the event of arrests or intimidation of its citizen journalists.

Kem Ley, a social researcher and analyst who spoke to the group in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, said whatever efforts the government makes to stop the spread of citizen journalism will be futile.

“The government cannot defeat this movement, and they know this, so they must find a strategy to work with it,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)

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