The mastheads of Cambodia’s two storied English news outlets look the same as they did when I arrived in the country, but for those of us working covering the swiftly developing Southeast Asian country, the last two years have been a sea change.
I came to Cambodia at the start of 2017 to learn from a Phnom Penh news outlet that weathered constant batterings from political and business interests yet still maintained its fierce attitude. When my internship at the Cambodia Daily ended, I enthusiastically accepted a job, thrilled to learn about the country I had come to love from veteran local and foreign journalists. By September, the government had taxed the Daily to its death, as well as a slew of independent radio shows that broadcast to rural provinces. Eight hours before we were supposed to show up for our final day in the newsroom, the government arrested the leader of the primary opposition party, and we all reported as if we would have jobs the next day. Our last front page was meant to carry a tribute to the newspaper’s 24-year life, but instead bore the dramatic headline, “Descent into Outright Dictatorship.”
From there, attacks on media have become more slippery. The last remaining independent newspaper and friendly rival, the Phnom Penh Post, was sold to a Malaysian investor behind a PR company that has been hired to serve the unchallenged ruling party. Another English newspaper, the Khmer Times, is deeply connected to the prime minister’s family and the capital’s largest casino. The newspapers have lost a huge degree of independence, and it’s particularly grim for Cambodian reporters, whether they write in English or Khmer. Cambodia, like much of Southeast Asia, has clamped down on dissent and criticism, and the local reporters who stare this autocracy in the face deserve a lot more respect, attention and freedom than they actually receive.
So I’ve taken the plunge and become a freelance journalist, and two years later I’m still floating. I was uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a freelance journalist so early in my career, but I was not ready to abandon all that I had learned of Cambodia to start. I frantically took any writing job I could find in the beginning, but I’ve started to understand pitching and I am now focusing on the subjects – environment, business and human rights – that I intended to cover when I first accepted a job here.
America may have always had an internal gaze, but I’ve come to understand how challenging it is to reach this audience. That frustration has morphed into a conviction: as important as I believe it is to support journalism at home, America must maintain its interest in the rest of the world, because our country has – both willingly and unwittingly – tied itself too deep into global affairs. I decided to stay because I’ve heard so many important stories that should reach out beyond Cambodia, and I’m slowly figuring out how to bridge between Cambodia and the countries that are tied to it.
Unfortunately, I’m one of the few foreign reporters still in Cambodia. And if I’m being honest, I’m probably not qualified or prepared to tell Cambodia’s stories, at least not alone. But I’m stubborn enough to still be here, and I hope with given time and energy, more stubborn reporters emerge to rebuild a new scene on the ground where the Post and Daily once stood.
Danielle Keeton-Olsen is a freelance reporter based in Phnom Penh who covers economy, society and environmental issues. She interned and worked for the Cambodia Daily for just nine months before it was closed and stubbornly stuck it out in the country’s capital. She is also an engagement editor for the investigative news startup Tarbell.