Just one month after I helped launch a pioneer project training Khmer journalists in investigative reporting, Cambodia's repressive government cracked down on dissent, arresting at least five human rights activists and journalists. In spite of the risks, I urged the reporters to continue their dangerous but critical work. They lashed back.
"It's easy for you to say," one journalist told me. "You can get on a plane and go back home. We have to stay."
I wanted to say: "But this is my home. I'm Khmer, just like you," until I realized the hollowness of those words. The shameful truth was that if Cambodia's political instability worsened, I would leave again. Only this time, by choice. Thirty-two years before, my family and I fled the Khmer Rouge.
Growing up in Corvallis, Oregon, I listened to my Ma spin stories about Cambodia, tales of climbing coconut trees and riding water buffalo through sun-smeared rice paddies. She said little about the war, only that we were lucky to be alive.
"When you are old enough," she'd say, "go help Cambodia."
I finally did, two years ago. Supported by an Alicia Patterson Fellowship, I was going to spend a year researching Cambodia's intractable problem of land grabbing. At Portland International Airport, my mother dabbed at big watery eyes. "Good luck, gohn ma [mother's child]," she said. "Be careful."
When I moved there in February 2005, Cambodia was volatile. The year before, popular labor rights activist Chea Vichea was gunned down while reading a newspaper. Garment workers and farmers alternately protested in front of the National Assembly. One month after I arrived, military police shot and killed five farmers during a forced eviction. Few Khmer journalists had the skills or resources to get beyond basic facts and dig deeper into such stories.
As my fellowship came to a close and I prepared to head home, Internews, an international media development organization, posted a job advising journalists in Cambodia. I read the description and knew it was made for me. I took a buyout from the San Jose Mercury News and then called my Ma to tell her I wasn't coming home. I was already there.
I thought I was the ideal candidate to push for media development in Cambodia. I had solid professional credentials and was qualified like no other candidate. I'm Khmer. I speak the language and understand the culture. The benefits were clear. The drawbacks were not.
Being able to communicate with journalists during training and one-on-one mentoring sessions meant greater efficiency. Understanding the culture meant there were things they did not need to explain, such as why stories never included ages (it's rude to ask) and few were infused with direct quotes (it's an affront to directly question authority).
I wasn't prepared for the more nuanced challenges that working in media development in my homeland would present — challenges that invariably pitted me against the journalists I was trying to help.
Forging trust and extracting respect from them would be my first obstacle. I was working in a field with few women, in a program where all the participants were male and mostly older than I. No one in Cambodia's male-dominated society wants to answer to a woman, much less a younger one. I had no credibility and a lot to prove. I was also what the journalists called "Khmer pordadeh ," or "Cambodian from abroad," a foreigner. A fraud. In America, I never felt truly American. Now in Cambodia, I was told I wasn't really Cambodian.
I soon started to appreciate the distinction. Nariddh, the assistant journalism adviser, and I habitually urged good ethics. Cambodian journalists routinely practice "reporting by envelope," where getting paid to attend press conferences by the people holding them was not the exception but the rule.
One afternoon, a few reporters from our group strolled into our office and joked loudly about a press conference they covered that morning, where journalists jostled afterward as government officials distributed envelopes stuffed with R10,000 (roughly $5).
"Did you take one?" I asked Sem Saroeun, a journalist who earns about $50 monthly.
He paused, then said: "Of course I did. What can I do? My children are hungry."
"How can we write about corruption if we are corrupt?" I asked the other reporters during one training session on objectivity, balance and fairness.
Averted eyes. Silence. Then one weighed in.
"How much do you make on your NGO salary?" Eng Mengleng asked.
My answer mimicked theirs. Averted eyes. Silence. We shared shame, but for different reasons.
That night, I cried. In a country where some journalists make in one month what I might spend on a good Cabernet, and where my international job paid international wages and extras, like housing and health insurance, my condemnation of their bribe-taking felt disingenuous. In Cambodia, depending upon who you were, professional ethics was either a sacrifice or a luxury.
Beyond their lack of writing and reporting experience, the journalists were operating in a country with no freedom of information law, a place where telling the truth meant risking their lives. The end result: stories populated by anonymous sources and rumors that reporters tried to pass off as fact. Ban Chandararith ("Rith") investigated generous tax breaks on farmland for wealthy and politically connected businessmen. He refused to name names.
"It kills credibility," I said.
"I don't want to get killed," Rith replied.
I dropped the matter.
The biggest challenge arrived quickly. Just as the program tottered to its feet, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen began targeting journalists who criticized his border treaty with Vietnam. The string of arrests left our reporters shaken. Some of them — even those who worked for pro-government newspapers — wanted to leave the program, while others threatened to drop out of journalism altogether. A few talked privately about fleeing to Thailand.
Now was not the time to quit, Nariddh and I pleaded, but rather to stay and fight. When the journalists pointed out that I had something they did not — freedom to leave — I felt betrayed, confused, guilty as charged. I had already prepared for my own escape, withdrawing several thousand dollars in cash and wedging it inside my passport. Just in case.
By virtue of escaping from Cambodia in 1975 — and the Khmer Rouge genocide these journalists had survived — I possessed a dark blue passport emblazoned with a bald eagle seal that was my golden ticket to safety.
There were no more arrests that year. The journalists' stories led to major changes, including an overhaul of hiring practices within the Ministry of Education, long overdue pension payments for demobilized soldiers and the firing of the Minister of Labor accused in a human trafficking scandal. The program grew. The guys and I did, too.
Throughout the year, I walked a fine line between nudging them to fight for a free press and being complicit in their self-censorship for safety's sake.
When my contract with Internews ended, I knew that for all the reasons I was right for the job, I was also wrong for it. I declined a promotion, even as the guys were asking me to stay.
It was time for me to go home.
Putsata Reang (Putsata@gmail.com) is a journalist and author of the true crime novel "Deadly Secrets." She is currently at work on a family biography.