Every newsroom I work in in Cambodia is silent

Robot Dara

Journalist Mech Dara experienced deja vu when he learned he was losing his job on Sunday.

In the past six years, Dara has worked for three independent Cambodian news organizations that have been silenced in some way, including VOD, or Voice of Democracy.

The English- and Khmer-language publication was regarded as one of the last bastions of press freedom in the nation until Hun Sen, the leader of Cambodia, ordered its closure for publishing a story that "hurt" the standing of his administration.

According to a report from 9 February on Cambodia's response to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, Hun Manet, an army commander and potential successor to Hun Sen, had approved a $100,000 (£83,000) package. Because foreign aid agreements can only be approved by the prime minister, Hun Sen claimed that VOD had crossed a line.

Dara said, "I expected it, but I never imagined that it would come this quickly.

His two prior employers had suffered a similar end. .

Many believed that The Cambodia Daily's closure in 2017 as a result of a hefty tax bill was politically motivated. The Phnom Penh Post was sold the following year to a public relations company that had worked for the government.

It has taken Dara a while to earn the reputation as one of Cambodia's most reliable reporters.

"I grew up in the country. You hardly ever see high school graduates in my commune," the 35-year-old journalist said.

Dara would occasionally get up at three in the morning to walk the 10 km (6.22 miles) to a sizable area where farmers were harvesting rice when he was in high school in the outlying Kandal province. Before leaving for school, he would gather leftovers and bring them to his grandmother's house. He would skip school on other days to find food.

"I frequently missed class in order to try to catch fish, from morning until evening. I occasionally felt so weak from hunger. It was a feature of rural life, he claimed.

Mech Dara
Dara was born in the province of Kandal, close to Phnom Penh.

He had to spend some time in a pagoda after his grandmother died.

Dara, however, recalls hearing as a youngster that due to his curiosity, he would one day become a journalist. He wasn't aware of the meaning of the word at the time.

He eventually relocated to the nation's capital, Phnom Penh, where he over the years resided with various family members. He began studying English and learned about The Cambodia Daily, one of the two English-language publications in the nation.

He would ride his bicycle to the Daily's newsroom after school to read the pages that were posted outside for free reading.

He was invited in for a conversation one day and given the task of organizing the archives. Dara quickly realized, however, that he preferred to be out in the field seeking out his own stories than to write up those that had been reported by others.

"I never stopped pleading with people to take me out to do some reporting. I questioned a lot," he said. And then he finally had his chance one day.

Dara was initially given crime stories, as is typical for new reporters. But it didn't take him long to dive into more significant stories, such as those about politics, labor, and human rights.

A former manager at the Daily said, "Through sheer force of will and hard work he transformed from being a kid looking in a newsroom window to being the very essence of that newsroom.".

Dara made the difficult decision to switch from The Daily to The Phnom Penh Post, its rival across town, in 2016.

Both publications had freedoms that the regional Khmer-language media lacked, and they frequently covered contentious topics like forced evictions, deforestation, and corruption.

Some observers theorize that the government's need to placate Western donors may have contributed to its tolerance of the English-language press. They assert that due to Beijing's lack of insistence on such guarantees, China's increasing influence in Cambodia over the past ten years has changed that.

Dara was forced to witness the closure of his beloved old newsroom shortly after moving to the Phnom Penh Post.

The government issued a $6.3m (£4.9m) tax bill to the Cambodia Daily, which it vigorously contested. Prime Minister Hun Sen referred to the publishers as "thieves" and commanded the newspaper to "pack up your things and leave" if the bill was not paid within 30 days. A month later, the business closed.

Mech Dara
Dara, in the front center, with his coworkers from the Cambodia Daily in 2015.

The Post was later sold to a public relations company with strong ties to the government a year later. After the new owners fired the editor-in-chief and insisted that a story about the sale be taken down from the website, many of its journalists quit.

Dara eventually left as well, saying, "I couldn't take it any longer. " .

VOD began to fill the void left by the closure of the Cambodia Daily and the effective neutralization of the Phnom Penh Post.

It was established in 2003 as a free-standing radio broadcasting outlet. In 2017, as part of a larger campaign against the nation's media, it closed stations.

In the year 2020, Dara began working as a freelancer for the VOD website. A year later, she was hired on full-time. He claimed that after believing his career was over, the VOD newsroom gave him new life. .

"I was overjoyed. We had new people, but I was missing a lot of the people I used to work with," he said.

Dara pursued what may have been his most important story to date at VOD: how human trafficking hotspots in Cambodia were compelling their victims to participate in massive online fraud schemes.

The story was tenaciously covered by VOD and garnered attention from major news organizations, including the BBC.

While reporting in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, Dara was taken into custody by the police.

Some have hypothesized that this may have contributed to VOD being targeted.

Hun Sen
One of the most tyrannical rulers in the world with the longest tenure is Hun Sen.

Others have mentioned the general election that will take place in Cambodia in July.

Hun Sen, 70, has been in power in Cambodia since 1985, making him one of the world's longest-serving autocrats. In what is essentially a one-party state, he is currently serving his sixth term as prime minister after imprisoning or expelling a number of opposition politicians.

According to Sophal Ear, an expert on Cambodia's politics and development at Arizona State University, "keeping VOD around allowed him to argue that there was still a vestige of some independent press around.".

However, after obtaining additional financial support from China and realizing that the election was approaching, he made the snap decision to eliminate VOD. " .

Since then, Hun Sen has informed the VOD staff that they are free to apply for government employment.

Dara, who has been severely hurt by the loss of another job he loved, does not have that as an option. .

He admitted, "I couldn't sleep for two or three nights," and he might have to accept the end of his journalism career.

I feel really bad," he admitted. "Three locations have been closed. There are times when you say "enough is enough.". ".

(From 2013 to 2017 George Wright was employed by The Cambodia Daily.)

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