Hacks run free in Cambodia

Every year has its fair share of media scandals and rows and 2003 was no exception, with highlights including the Hello!/OK! High Court battle, the Press Complaints Commission squabbles and media select committee report, and Lord Black’s resignation over a secret payments row.

And that’s not forgetting the Hutton Inquiry, royal gagging orders and great undercover investigative scoops by newspapers and television.

If that was not enough, the end of the year was marked by the judge in the high-profile Soham murder trial describing press coverage as “sensational and lurid”.

The Attorney General, who had been uneasy about the amount of pre-trial publicity for some time, confirmed that two national papers and a radio station were being investigated for possible contempt of court.

It is true that journalists have been pushing the boundaries surrounding contempt of court for many years.

The hope is that, if they are deemed to have gone too far, they can argue about the time lapse between their stories and the eventual trial.

In this case there was also concern about the reporting during the trial – an area in which the media are usually much better at playing by the rules.

What was interesting to me was that this was being played out while I was in a part of the world where contempt of court and sub judice do not figure at all for journalists.

My required reading for a month of last year was The Cambodia Daily, an A4 publication which mainly sells to ex-pats and charity workers in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh.

It is an independent Englishlanguage newspaper that describes itself as being dedicated to strengthening a free press. Many news organisations, such as The New York Times and the Dow Jones News Service, provide their news free of charge and you can see this scattered about the paper.

But what I picked up on, other than it was a cracking read in a fantastic news area, was the great quotes the paper’s journalists got from police and the authorities about crime suspects – often seconds after the incident.

For example, they had a brilliant story about a car full of the “sons of the city elite” crashing into a coconut truck in the capital, killing one man and injuring several other members of the rural family. If that were not enough, the men in the car got an AK-47 out of the boot and sprayed the gathering crowd (deemed witnesses) with bullets, killing two more people.

The police chief, when describing the assailants, was quoted as saying: “They were a little drunk.” Not a quote you would usually see in the British press. A couple of days later, when it emerged that one of the men being sought was the President’s nephew, the extremely brave police chief, Reach Sokhon, added: “The offenders have escaped and are hiding in their relatives’ houses in Phnom Penh.”

Sokhon must be hugely popular at the Foreign Correspondents Club, for in the same week he was giving juicy background information on the fourth gun attack in eight days. This time a beer garden singer was gunned down by a gang of young men as she left work.

The chief was happy to be quoted as saying the culprits included a former boyfriend seeking revenge after being denied sexual favours.

One of his provincial colleagues was also able to give hacks a few choice quotes before justice was done.

Ath Khem had just arrested a woman for killing her daughter after becoming her son-in-law’s mistress.

In true Daily Mail style he said: “As far as the police have found out, the mother suspect is sex hungry and not a typical Cambodian mother.”

Police official Touch Sarin recounted the incident of a woman who had attempted to slice off her husband’s genitals with a razor. The man managed to drag himself to hospital for treatment and the wife escaped through a banana plantation.

“The attack was provoked by jealousy as the husband, who sells DVDs, videos, CDs and cassettes, would often stay out late partying with friends,” Sarin stated matter-of-factly.

And there was no pity for a man arrested the day before for being a suspected drug dealer. Brigadier General Moek Dara, director of the Interior Ministry’s narcotics department, said: “This drug dealer is not a common person.

Even though he is not a Khmer Rouge, he is more brutal than one. We have hard evidence.”

So that’s okay, then… As you can see, Cambodia is a great place to be a hack, with no worries about the possibility of someone being charged or whether proceedings are active.

But before you jack in your jobs and head east, you may have noticed the common theme of casual gun crime.

This is a place where if someone doesn’t like what you have reported you can end up dead.

Cambodia may be a dangerous place to work as a journalist, but there are also dangers closer to home working in the regional press.

Any reporter or photographer worth their salt will have been chased from a seedy pub by over-protective regulars at some stage in their career.

Even going down to reception to talk to a punter can lead to a visit to casualty. I remember a very successful reporter being laid into at the front desk by someone who had taken exception to his words of wisdom, much to the surprise of the people handing in their small ads.

My worst personal examples include being bitten by a ferocious dog (admittedly no larger than a medium-sized rat), while talking to gypsies on romantic novelist Barbara Cartland’s site in Hertfordshire.

But I also had to have a panic alarm installed at home after unwittingly getting involved in a gangland trial, which is probably a better story for my street cred. As most of the gang had been locked up, my biggest fear was that my Christmas tree lights would fuse and set the bloody thing off.

It all passed peacefully until a couple of years later one of the gang wrote to me from prison using an unusual colour of ink (always a danger sign, according to psychologists) and the police were called in again.

In fact, most reporters are used to being threatened on a fairly regular basis by different people and we tend to take it in our stride.

Most of the time it is merely bluff and bluster, with people lashing out at the press because they are not enjoying being scrutinised.

For example, one can only imagine that when Fausto Tonna, former finance director of Italian company Parmalat, told journalists outside court in Parma last week, “I wish you and your families a slow and painful death”, he was not intending to take matters into his own hands.

Unfortunately some words are taken literally with tragic consequences.

Last year a policeman in the Ivory Coast shot dead a French journalist at the police headquarters after his boss told him to “get rid of him”.

The police chief didn’t intend his instruction to be taken in the literal mafia sense, but it just goes to show you can’t be too careful whom you ask for an interview.  Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk. She’ll be back in four weeks.

Next week: Chris Shaw

by Alison Hastings

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