“There is another potential loss to consider: this silence might also bring an end to an era of outstanding economic and social growth”
Southeast Asia experienced a political earthquake last month. The surprise victory of Mahathir Mohamad has shaken up Malaysian politics and a once-untouchable prime minister’s nepotistic network in one of the region’s most advanced societies. While this was big news for all countries in Southeast Asia, one voice was not reporting it as it would have done. Just one day before the election, Cambodia’s last independent news voice faltered.
The emotional walkout of a large number of foreign journalists at the Phnom Penh Post following the new owner’s demand to retract a contentious article on the newspaper’s sale (see page 40) might have stripped the Post of its famed independence. The quality journalism they produced will not be easily replaced – and as an unfortunate consequence, the readers will suffer as the remaining media guardians filter the news for them.
The new publishers have the chance to prove their critics wrong. Those who have lived in Cambodia for a few years may well remember the suspicions the Post’s previous owner faced when taking the paper over from its original founder. Australian mining magnate Bill Clough was accused of buying the paper only to promote his business interests and to influence Cambodian lawmakers. It took years to achieve the recognition the Post enjoyed during the last year under its recently fired Cambodian editor-in-chief, Kay Kimsong.
Many in Cambodia’s upper echelons will likely consider the sale of the Post and the walkouts a victory; those who dared to speak to power in their journalistic efforts are gone. But the country will also lose a trustworthy source of nonpolitical stories as well, ones that highlight Cambodia’s diversity, openness, modernity, economic progress, reforms and the opportunities it offers investors and visitors.
There is another potential loss to consider: this silence might also bring an end to an era of outstanding economic and social growth. For the past 20 years, with the freest press in all of Southeast Asia, Cambodia has grown tremendously both economically and socially. Was there a direct correlation between the famous openness of the country, its international flair, creative ambiance, economic success and open press? One might want to glance at Turkey, a country that has gone from being an economic superstar with a famously free and liberal press to a nation with a government-controlled media environment with huge economic problems.
In addition to silencing a free press that dared to uncover government misdeeds, the ruling administration has taken an increasingly alienating stance towards its democratic friends in an effort to emulate China, whose influence and financial interests in Cambodia have grown exponentially in recent years.
But Cambodia is not China. And while Cambodia’s new friend and mentor exercises a similar level of control over public opinion at home, China also battles corruption, nepotism and environmental problems efficiently as it keeps its citizens in line. Cambodia has chosen to follow one path laid by China, but has not yet set foot on the other. With no independent evaluation and no motivation or clear plan for self-improvement, Cambodia may well begin an era of stagnation – or of Chinese dependence. The loser is Cambodia.