“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 Globe - - Editorial - Send your com­ments to ed­i­[email protected]­me­di­aa­sia.com

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.

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