Cambodia: “Every newsroom where I work is muzzled.”
When journalist Mech Dara learned on Sunday that he was being laid off, he experienced déjà vu.
VOD, or Voice of Democracy, is the third independent Cambodian newsroom Dara has worked for in the past six years that has been silenced in some way.
The Khmer and English language outlet was regarded as one of the country’s last bastions of free press until Cambodian leader Hun Sen ordered its closure, claiming it had published a story that “harmed” his government’s reputation.
A 9 February report on Cambodia’s response to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria stated that army commander and potential successor Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s eldest son, had approved a $100,000 (£83,000) aid package. Hun Sen stated that VOD had crossed a line because only the prime minister can approve foreign aid packages.
“I anticipated it, but I never anticipated that it would arrive so quickly,” Dara said.
Both of his previous employers met the same fate.
The Cambodia Daily ceased publication in 2017 after receiving a hefty tax bill, a move viewed by many as politically motivated. The following year, the Phnom Penh Post was sold to a government-employed public relations firm.
Dara’s path to becoming one of Cambodia’s most esteemed journalists has been arduous.
“I was a rural youth. In my commune, high school graduations are extremely uncommon “The 35-year-old reporter stated.
When he was in school in the rural province of Kandal, Dara would sometimes rise at 3 a.m. and walk 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to a large rice-growing area. Before going to school, he would collect leftovers and bring them to his grandmother. On other occasions, he skipped school to find food.
“I frequently skipped school to fish from morning until night. Sometimes I was so hungry that I was on the verge of fainting. It was a part of rural existence “he said.
When his grandmother died, he was forced to reside in a pagoda for a time.
Dara recalls being told multiple times as a child that his inquisitive nature would one day lead him to become a journalist. At the time, he was unaware of the word’s meaning.
Eventually, he relocated to Phnom Penh, where he lived with various family members for many years. He began studying English and learned about The Cambodia Daily, one of two English-language newspapers in the country.
After school, he would ride his bicycle to the Daily’s newsroom to read the free pages posted on a board outside.
One day, he was called in for a meeting and given responsibility for organizing the archives. Dara decided, however, that he preferred to be out in the field pursuing his own stories rather than filing those reported by others.
“I never cease to pester people to take me out reporting. I inquired countless times, “he said. And then one day he had his opportunity.
Like most beginning journalists, Dara was initially assigned crime stories. But it didn’t take him long to move on to larger stories, such as politics, labor, and human rights.
A former manager at the Daily stated, “Through sheer force of will and hard work, he went from being a child observing a newsroom through a window to being the very essence of that newsroom.”
Dara made the difficult decision in 2016 to switch from the Daily to the Phnom Penh Post, the Daily’s rival across town.
Both outlets reported frequently on controversial topics such as corruption, deforestation, and forced evictions, which were not permitted in the Khmer-language media.
Some observers believe that the government’s tolerance of the English-language press was influenced by its desire to appease Western donors. According to them, China’s growing influence in Cambodia over the past decade has altered this, as Beijing no longer requires such guarantees.
Soon after relocating to the Phnom Penh Post, Dara was forced to witness the closure of his beloved previous newsroom.