Lessons from a past threat to The Cambodia Daily

Amidst a recent wave of Cambodia Daily-related social media reminiscing, a video was posted showing the Daily staff holding an emergency meeting to discuss government threats to shut the paper down. That video was not shot in the last few weeks, however; it was shot in 1995.

I was the editor of the paper in those days, and I led that meeting. But after all these years, my memory of the situation – what led to the threat, and how the situation was resolved – was far from clear. So, after being asked about it several times over the past few weeks, I decided to go back through old issues of The Cambodia Daily to refresh my memory. First I looked through every front page from the period when the threat took place, but found nothing about it. Then, I looked through every page of local coverage from that period, and still found nothing. As far as I can tell, in 1995 the Cambodia Daily didn’t publish a single prominent article about The Cambodia Daily potentially having to close down under pressure from the government.

At first I was dismayed by this lack of coverage. But as I reflected on it, and remembered some of the reasons for it, I came to see that decision as appropriate. And, I believe, some of the points that were relevant then are still relevant today.

Being fully transparent, certainly one of the reasons for the lack of coverage was strategic. Treating the threat as a non-story was the best way to avoid a head-on confrontation and increase the chances that it would not be carried out. But if that were the only reason for not covering the threat, I don’t think we would have taken that approach. And it’s a different, more important reason that I want to focus in on here.

While I didn’t find anything about the government’s threat against the Daily as I combed through those archives, what I did find was article after article about offices of Khmer-language newspapers being ransacked, Cambodian editors being jailed, and journalists being threatened, attacked, and killed. Threats against freedom of the press are nothing new in Cambodia. And the threats against the Daily were insignificant relative to far more grave threats being leveled, and carried out, against the Khmer-language press. As the editor of The Cambodia Daily, I was always aware that we were not there to write about ourselves. We were not the story then, and, while clearly the future of the Daily is in more peril now than it was in those days, in an important sense, The Cambodia Daily is still not the story today.

Don’t get me wrong. The situation the Daily is facing is nothing like the one we faced in 1995. At that time, it was far from clear that the threat to shut the paper was real, while today, it is clear that those who want to be rid of the paper are dead serious. That’s big news, that must be covered by the Daily, as well as news outlets around the world. The current Daily staff is doing a tremendous job under great pressure. So the closure of the paper is a major news event – it’s just not THE story.

The Cambodia Daily was founded, principally, to help establish a tradition of a free press in Cambodia, and to help train Cambodian journalists to carry on that tradition. For 24 years, The Cambodia Daily has helped provide a check to those in power by making available to Cambodians accurate information about topics ranging from corruption to environmental destruction to sex trafficking to labor exploitation. So the paper can be shut down, but its readers can’t unlearn what they now know about the power of information. And for 24 years The Cambodia Daily has contributed to the training of a new generation of Cambodian journalists to ferret out the truth, and let Cambodians know about it. So the paper can be shut down, but those journalists can’t be untrained. Those who are afraid of The Cambodia Daily and the functions it has served may be able to stop the paper from publishing, but they will never be rid of what it has helped to create.

That’s why The Cambodia Daily is not the story. As it was 22 years ago, the story is Cambodian journalism — and what happens next. And I suspect that story won’t unfold the way the opponents of the Cambodia Daily are hoping.

Barton Biggs served as The Cambodia Daily’s first editor. After his tenure at the Daily he worked for American news organization CNN for 12 years. He is now a psychotherapist and writer. He lives in the U.S. state of Virginia.

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