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From Cults To Causes

The evolution of the press in a nation at war with itself

From Cults To Causes
Cambodia Silenced: The Press Under Six Regimes
By Harish C. Mehta
Bangkok: White Lotus Press Nor mentioned
A string of recent assassinations and lawsuits has left the impression that Cambodia is a dangerous place to be a Cambodian journalist, which is true; and that the country's press is less than free, which too is basically true though with qualifications. As Harish Mehta reminds us, the United Nations peacekeeping mandate of 1991-93 brought with it, temporarily, a whole new set of rules.

"The sight of many former politician-journalists, erudite ideologues, and men of letters, signalled that the stage was set for the re-emergence of the Great Cambodian Debate," he writes. "The press reckoned it would have a field day. It was goodbye to the vapid days of the Hun Sen regime, and to its repressive press law."

The sudden eruption of newspapers, "at one level, reflected a visceral anger that was now bursting out; at another level, [they] passed off comment and innuendo as news. Though one of the poorest countries in the world with 60 per cent illiteracy, skewed development had given [Cambodia] the highest per capita newspaper availability in Southeast Asia."

Despite "occasional flashes of genuine investigative reporting", the plethora of new journals "alleged corruption in high places, but sadly lacked journalistic skills to conduct a thorough investigation, and what eventually appeared in print was a tapestry of allegations but not a shred of proof." Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, not known for tolerance to begin with, was understandably annoyed to be described, in February 1995 in the paper Serei Pheap Thmet, as "the chief of thieves".

Mehta's enjoyable book is a labour of love—his jacket bio says he considers Phnom Penh his second home—and a piece of impressive historical scholarship. It tells a tortured nation's story from a helpfully oblique angle. Mehta, a correspondent for Singapore's Business Times, has chosen his topic well and has done it justice.

In newly-independent Cambodia in the 1950s, two dozen slim newspapers "gave Cambodians a rough political education". The '60s was "a period when the Sihanouk cult was carefully created", when the press was little more than a "propaganda vehicle" for the egomaniacal ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Mehta refers to his "pugilistic style", his penchant for answering critics via long editorials. Sihanouk has been the Norman Mailer of Third World dictators and "often complained that foreign journalists did not understand his country, despite his government's efforts to assist them in doing so," writes Mehta, drily.

After a '70s pro-US coup, Field Marshal Lon Nol's "colourless personality rubbed off on his captive press.... Realities Cambodgiennes (was) a magazine obsessed with turgid policy. Onslaught upon ideological onslaught piled heavy on the reader."

Little reading was done during the Khmer Rouge rule of 1975-79. During the Vietnamese-backed regime of 1979-91, the most popular, and surprisingly good, publication was the Communist Party journal Kampuchea. Mehta has kind words for Kampuchea's editor, Khieu Kanharith, who became secretary of state for information in the post-1993 coalition government. Mehta also notes the advent of a lively English-language press, in particular the fortnightly Phnom Penh Post. Unfortunately, Mehta finished the book too soon to include journalist Nate Thayer's discovery of Pol Pot alive in the jungle, or Cambodia Daily's feat of publishing a photocopies special edition on July 6, 1997, several copies of which this reviewer saved as souvenirs of the coup d'etat.


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