As Buddhist monks across the country don saffron robes and leave pagodas in search of donations to fill alms bowls each morning, seven monks based in Dangkao district on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh are thinking only of feeding the country’s growing appetite for independent news.
By noon, when most monks are sitting down to their final meal of the day, the seven will have drawn up a list of stories on a large sheet of butcher’s paper, two will be out chasing the day’s biggest news and the remainder will be working on scripts and following the day’s events through Facebook and Twitter.
And before retiring for the evening, the team, all members of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice (IMNSJ), will have produced roughly 10 minutes of news and disseminated it through the IMNSJ Facebook page, which has more than 10,000 followers.
The project is a pilot for the scheduled February 14 launch of VIM (Voice of Independent Monks) Radio, a once-weekly, hour-long program to feature on 93.5 Mohanokor FM’s Friday afternoon slot, which, according to a 2010 International Republican Institute survey, has the capacity to reach more than 9 million listeners.
The program will be headed by But Buntenh, founder of IMNSJ, and will deliver content in a three-pronged format: religious news, social news and roundtable discussions on the most pressing issues of the day.
Moses Ngeth, communication coordinator at the Community Legal Education Center, which since June has been broadcasting daily in Mohanokor’s 3 p.m. slot and will hand the Friday segment to the monks, said the birth of VIM Radio had the potential to greatly increase the reach of independent news.
“It is not professional journalism, but it is journalism from the grassroots,” Mr. Ngeth said.
“Often, the news that happens at the grassroots level is taken by professional journalists, written in English and published in a newspaper that the people at the grassroots may not read.
“[VIM Radio] citizen journalists with their laptops are like mobile radio stations at grassroots level—they can broadcast in Khmer-language from a village under a tree to everyone who has a radio,” he said, adding that VIM Radio will also be available online.
While none of the seven members of the VIM Radio team has formal journalism training, they have been schooled in the basics by Nop Vy, head of the media division of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, who says that while the IMNSJ monks can play a role in the media, the traditions of Buddhism could prove obstacles to frontline newsgathering.
“Some activities, the monks simply cannot do,” Mr. Vy said.
“I would never assign a monk to go out into the field to find stories and conduct interviews because things that happen in the field can conflict with the morals of monks,” he said, with reference to interaction with women in newsgathering, which would contradict the expected behavior of monks.
As far as But Buntenh is concerned, it is the responsibility of monks to serve the people at a time when the voices of dissent are routinely crushed.
“Our people have been lied to long enough by the authorities and the media that they control,” But Buntenh said.
“We are monks and we are citizens, and the time has come for us to use our position as respected members of the society to become citizen journalists and bring the truth to our people. Why can we not do this? Buddha does not prohibit this,” he said.
But Buntenh acknowledges that journalism is a job that most might see as perilous—11 reporters critical of the government have been killed since 1994—and he had to scour the ranks of his IMNSJ to find a team willing and able to support him in his quest.
“I monitored everyone who follows my Facebook page [in order to recruit the VIM Radio team],” But Buntenh said.
“I can see who is brave enough to share my video clips, who has the capacity to mobilize monks, who attends demonstrations and who remains uncorrupted,” he said.
“I monitored for two to three months and then I called them to come join my team.”
Those who received the call to become VIM Radio reporters were: Yim Hoeun, a 25-year-old with a Bachelor of Education; Chhean Piseth, a 23-year-old finance student; An Vichet, a 28-year-old law student; Heng Sro, a 19-year-old studying grade 12 at secondary school; and Kuong Phalla, a 20-year-old in grade 7.
On top of the five reporters, Chao San Ratha, a 28-year-old with a Bachelor of Computer Science, was given the title of VIM Radio director and chief assistant to But Buntenh, who calls himself editor, a title he admits is beyond him.
“We have only received basic training—the who, how, what, why, where, when—and this title as editor does not really fit me, but we have the equipment we need to make radio shows,” he said, referring to two laptops, two cameras and seven smart phones, most of which were donated by NGOs for the birth of VIM Radio.
Born to poor farmers in Siem Reap’s Varin district in 1979 and ordained in the province’s Damnak pagoda aged 20, But Buntenh struggled to win a scholarship to the University of Bombay in India.
Six years later, the scholarship had became a Masters in Sociology and led to him lecturing in ethics and good governance, cultural anthropology, sociology and Buddhism at Pannasastra University on his return to Phnom Penh, a post from which he was expelled with no explanation three weeks before the July national election. He believes his expulsion was due to his Facebook activism.
Besides Khmer, But Buntenh speaks five foreign languages—English, Hindi, Thai, Burmese and Vietnamese—but it is his native tongue that has been used in increasingly aggressive rhetoric against the government.
Since rising to prominence around the disputed election, But Buntenh has become the most openly critical monk in the country.
He has led marches for human rights, chastised the highest-ranking monk in the land, Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, called for the Minister of Cults and Religion Min Khin to step down over relics of Buddha stolen from Odong mountain, and was detained by military police without reason in Preah Vihear province while supporting ethnic Kuoy villagers protesting against land evictions.
A leader among the outspoken factions of the clergy, But Buntenh has now taken on the role of the leader of the people against a repressive government, he says, much like the Venerable Hem Chieu, who was accused of rising up against French colonial rule in 1942. In July of that year, Hem Chieu was arrested and imprisoned on allegations of conspiring to stage a coup, sparking the first large demonstration against French rule.
A march to the residence of Jean De Lens, the acting Resident Superior at the time, drew more than 1,000 protesters, more than half of them monks, and was led by Pach Chhoeun, editor of the country’s first Khmer-language newspaper, Nagara Vatta.
“People forget the connection between monks and the media and the contribution that monks have made to the preservation of culture and society in the past,” But Buntenh said.
“It is part of our job to ensure that the people of Cambodia don’t forget their history. And history is happening all the time.
“Do we want our history to continue on the path it is now and then only tell one side of the story?”
On Thursday, Non Nget, Supreme Patriarch of the Mohanikaya sect, said that the launch of VIM Radio was “beyond the bounds of Buddhism,” and would affect “social stability.”
Earlier in the week, Kim Son, Phnom Penh’s chief monk, said the media-savvy monks were “breaking monk rules” and “prohibited them from doing this job.”
But Buntenh, however, is unfazed by the threats.
“They [the CPP government] have many, many monks involved in the media,” he said. “We are the monks for the people.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom and Khuon Narim)
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