Goddammit, Democracy is Dying in Darkness in Cambodia
Warm beer in New York
The Cambodia Daily has been shut down, and I can’t think of a better way to mourn its passing than drinking several (ok, four) watery and warm beers.
I interned one summer at the Cambodia Daily 13 years ago, and it took me a couple weeks to understand how truly out of place I was. As a journalist’s kid, and as an expat who had grown up in India, I thought I understood journalism and its relationship to the small horrors of the developing world, but Phnom Penh and the Daily surprised me.
Phnom Pen was shocking: the decades-old bomb craters in the streets, getting propositioned at bars by little kids, the hollowed out, methed-up looks of the guys who taxied me around on mopeds. That doesn’t even cover the aura that emanates from the Tuol Sleng genocide memorial, as if the air itself doesn’t want to exist for what it’s witnessed. It’s the most depressing place I’ve ever been.
But everybody at the Daily seemed to find pleasure in their work, the hourly grind of putting out a daily paper. I’d only ever seen a magazine working from the inside at the time, and the pace of a daily paper was as exhilarating as it was bewildering. It almost seemed like a game, and while I could see the appeal, something didn’t click, because I thought about the job in purely transactional terms: they got paid to produce a paper. It didn’t even occur to me that there could be something more than the most mercenary motivation fueling their interest.
It wasn’t any one story that did it; it was a cumulative effect. One day, I tagged along with a reporter covering some horrific car crash, where a van carrying some absurd number of people—12, 15, 25—crashed headfirst into a bus made of wood, killing everyone in both vehicles. A day after the crash there was still a van’s length of blood smearing the road, a bloody diaper on the shoulder. Another day I helped translate a report on a landmark drug conviction, a drug smuggler sentenced to an unprecedented prison stay. It turned out the defendant didn’t speak Khmer and didn’t understand what he was being charged with, even as the sentence was being handed down and celebrated. One of the most memorable stories from that summer was when I accompanied two reporters looking into a triple murder. A guy and his three sons were gunned down in the middle of the night; it was claimed that they had been killed for practicing witchcraft. Turned out the guy had been in an open dispute with one of his neighbors, who almost certainly murdered him, and the local police were, for whatever reason—private grudge, laziness, disinterest—turning a blind eye.
All of which is to say the people at the Daily were doing good, necessary work: shining a spotlight on awful events, exposing deficiencies in the country’s moribund infrastructure, underlining injustices for anyone who was willing to see. It was an utterly humbling experience. I not only realized that I wasn’t cut out for reporting, I also understood I wasn’t worthy of serving these people coffee.
At a time when the president of the United States has taken to demonizing a news media that he only ever seems to watch on TV, the Cambodia Daily‘s shuttering due to some trumped up tax bill issued by Hun Sen’s dictatorial regime is a useful reminder that diligent journalists are working all across the world only so that important stories can be told. They write the stories that lead to the stories you ignore in the major papers; they work in countries you’d be hard pressed to find on a map; they cover events so far removed from your everyday life that they might as well be fiction. They do all this with no hope for fame or fortune; they labor on with little promise of making progress, shoveling shit up the steepest of hills; they work in the shadow of threats and reprisals; they work through the night even though they’ve been told their paper is no more. These people aren’t saints, they are merely good reporters, struggling to get to the heart of the matter, whatever the matter is.
I was lucky enough to watch some of these people work and see what that dedication looks like. I only wish I had half of their integrity, and that they could continue to do the work that Cambodia, and the world, so desperately needs.