All of the newsrooms I work in in Cambodia are silent

Dara the mech

Mech Dara, a journalist, experienced déjà vu when he learned that he would be losing his job on Sunday.

In the past six years, Dara has worked for three independent news organizations in Cambodia. VOD, or Voice of Democracy, is the third to have been silenced in some way.

Before Hun Sen, the leader of Cambodia, ordered its closure for publishing a story that "hurt" the reputation of his government, the Khmer and English language publication was thought to be one of the last bastions of free press in the nation.

The older son of Hun Sen, Hun Manet, an army commander and potential successor, had approved a $100,000 (£83,000) package, according to a report on 9 February on Cambodia's aid response to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Given that only the prime minister can approve requests for foreign aid, Hun Sen claimed that VOD had gone too far.

Although I anticipated it, Dara remarked, "I never anticipated that it would come this quickly.".

His previous two employers had experienced a comparable end. .

A huge tax bill forced The Cambodia Daily to close its doors in 2017, and many people believed that this was a politically motivated decision. The Phnom Penh Post was purchased by a public relations company the year after it had been sold to the government.

Dara's journey to becoming a reputable journalist in Cambodia has been a protracted one.

I grew up in a rural area. You hardly ever see people in my commune graduate from high school," the 35-year-old journalist said.

Dara used to get up at 3 a.m. and walk 10 km (6 point 2 miles) to a large area where farmers were harvesting rice when he was in high school in the remote Kandal province. Prior to going to school, he would gather leftovers and deliver them to his grandmother. Sometimes he would skip school in order to find food.

From morning until night, I frequently missed class in order to try to catch fish. I occasionally came close to passing out from hunger. The country lifestyle required it, he said.

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

He had to spend some time living in a pagoda after the death of his grandmother.

Dara, however, remembers being informed that he would grow up to be a journalist due to his natural curiosity. He didn't know what the word meant at the time.

He eventually relocated to Phnom Penh, the nation's capital, and over the years lived there with various family members. The Cambodia Daily, one of the two English-language newspapers in the nation, was mentioned to him as he began learning the language.

He would bike to the Daily's newsroom after school to read the pages that were posted on a board outside for people to read for free.

He was given the responsibility of organizing the archives after being invited in for a chat one day. Dara soon came to the conclusion, though, that he preferred to be out in the field seeking out his own stories than to write up what others had already reported.

"I didn't stop hounding people to take me out to do some reporting. I questioned numerous times," he said. And eventually, he had his chance one day.

Dara was given crime stories to start, as is typical for new reporters. But it didn't take him long to start diving deeper into bigger stories, such as those involving politics, labor, and human rights.

He changed from being a young person peering in a newsroom window to embodying the very spirit of that newsroom, according to a former manager at the Daily.

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

Both media outlets were given freedoms that the regional Khmer-language media did not, and they frequently covered contentious topics like corruption, deforestation, and forcible evictions.

The government's desire to please Western donors, according to some observers, may have contributed to its tolerance of the English-language press. They assert that this has changed as China's influence has grown in Cambodia over the past ten years because Beijing does not demand such guarantees.

Dara had to see his beloved old newsroom close shortly after moving to the Phnom Penh Post.

The Cambodia Daily vigorously contested the $6.3m (£4.9m) tax bill that the government levied against it. Prime Minister Hun Sen referred to the publishers as "thieves" and demanded payment within 30 days, after which the newspaper should "pack up your things and leave.". One month later, the store closed.

Mech Dara
Dara, front and center, with the staff of the Cambodia Daily in 2015.

The Post was subsequently sold to a PR agency with strong ties to the government a year later. After the new owners fired the editor-in-chief and demanded that a story about the sale be removed from the website, a large number of its journalists left the publication.

Eventually, Dara too left: "I couldn't take it any longer. " .

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

It was established as an independent media organization in 2003 with a primary focus on radio broadcasts. As part of a broader campaign against the nation's media, it closed stations in 2017.

In 2020, Dara began doing freelance work for the VOD website; a year later, she was hired on as a full-time employee. He claimed that the VOD newsroom energized him after he thought his career was over. .

"I was very happy. Although we had new people, I was missing a lot of the people I used to work with, he admitted.

Dara pursued what may have been his most important story to date at VOD: how human trafficking hotspots in Cambodia were pressuring victims to participate in large-scale international online fraud.

The story, which VOD persistently covered, garnered attention from major news organizations around the world, including the BBC.

Police detained Dara as she reported from the coastal city of Sihanoukville.

This has been mentioned as a potential factor in VOD being targeted.

Hun Sen
One of the most long-reigning authoritarian leaders is Hun Sen.

Others have mentioned the July general election in Cambodia.

With his reign over Cambodia beginning in 1985, Hun Sen, 70, is one of the most long-reigning autocrats in history. Having sent a number of opposition politicians to prison or exile, he is currently in his sixth term as prime minister of what is essentially a one-party state.

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

"However, he decided to act quickly and eliminate VOD after securing additional financial support from China and realizing that the election is approaching. " .

Since then, Hun Sen has informed VOD staff that if they so choose, they may apply to work for the government.

Dara, who has already suffered greatly from losing a job he loved, does not have that as an option. .

He added that he may have to accept the fact that his journalism career is over and stated, "I couldn't sleep for two or three nights.

I feel awful, he said. "Three businesses have been closed. You may occasionally come to a point where you decide "enough is enough.". ".

Between 2013 and 2017 (George Wright worked for The Cambodia Daily),

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