Phnom Penh, Cambodia – San, a 47-year-old former soldier, has worked full-time at a newspaper in Cambodia for the past 14 years. He carries company-issued business cards, a government-issued press pass, and a walkie-talkie on his hip, but he has never been paid a salary.
Instead, like hundreds of other members of Cambodia’s press corps, he cobbles together a living by combing the countryside for news, then accepting bribes not to publish stories.
In some cases, San uncovers wrongdoing and approaches the law-breaker for hush money. Other times he receives regular “envelopes” of cash from local officials to ensure he doesn’t even start hunting for news in their vicinity. Either way, he doesn’t publish many stories.
This way of doing journalism is ingrained in Cambodia, but is rarely discussed openly, even though a spate of recent violent attacks has been directed at this unruly corps of journeyman reporters, who tend to congregate in remote areas where illegal logging and land grabs are rampant.
“It’s difficult, because most journalists in the provinces have gone into the media profession without any professional training, so sometimes they don’t even think it is unethical to get $5, $10, or $50,” said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, the director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.
Many of these journalists work for what Nariddh called “newspapers that exist only in name”. They are four-page, black-and-white broadsheets that adhere to no particular publication schedule and are often based out of their publishers’ homes.
Like San, their reporters rarely receive salaries; they may even pay kickbacks to their publishers from the bribes they scrounge up. Nariddh estimated that of about 400 registered newspapers in Cambodia, only 20 publish regularly.
In interviews with Al Jazeera, San and other local journalists described how they draw on a tangle of informal connections for rumours and news tips that are then parlayed into cash. Often, a single tip might be passed around to several different newspapers, with bribes extracted every step of the way.
“An overwhelming majority of local Cambodian journalists get their income from multiple sources, because we don’t get pay from the publisher. But we make money from our news,” said a man who asked to be identified only as “K”, a 40-year-old journalist who spent a decade working for a newspaper which published once a month.
The reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was violating commonly accepted journalistic code of ethics, explained how he covered the illegal logging beat in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri, remote northeastern provinces that have dozens of registered journalists.
Local villagers would call in tips to K, who would then summon a group of other reporters – ostensibly his competitors – to go into the forests and try to photograph illegal loggers.
The loggers would often pay the gaggle of journalists $30-$50 each to go away and delete their photographs. If this didn’t happen, K would pass the information to his newspaper’s publisher, who would try to extract a bribe himself.
“It’s not extortion, but it’s called ‘tea money’,” he explained.
In his role as a provincial bureau chief for his newspaper, San, who asked to be identified only by one name, said he regularly receives cash payoffs from illegal gamblers, fertiliser smugglers, unlicensed karaoke clubs, and local officials of all stripes.
In one case, he said, a customs official raped his maid and the word spread from journalist to journalist. The attacker distributed envelopes containing $50 and $30 bribes to about 100 different editors and publishers. The news never came out.
San indignantly rejected any suggestion that he is practising extortion, but readily admitted that he makes a living by accepting loy monosachetena – “sentimental money” – in order to “build relationships” with provincial officials and businesspeople. He said he sees this as a public service in a country where law enforcement is lax and impunity rampant.
“For me, professionalism and a journalistic code of ethics is very important for every journalist to practise,” San said.
“I can say that those who paid the envelopes are bad people; if they were good, they would not give money to journalists not to write a story… If they were not corrupt, if they were not smuggling, if they were really clean, they would not do that.”
But journalists who make a living this way often find themselves in danger.
In mid-October, a reporter was killed while chasing illegal loggers in a remote part of Cambodia’s northeast. Earlier this year, another reporter who covered illegal fishing was killed. There are frequent reports of journalists who have been beaten, threatened, or injured in car chases with loggers.
“It’s a dangerous game,” said Sebastian Strangio, the author of the recent book Hun Sen’s Cambodia. He called this type of behaviour “unfortunately widespread”.
“Obscure publications with irregular schedules and poor distribution … are frequently used as vehicles for extracting small payments from illegal loggers and other local big-men. The reporters who take part in this activity are like free-riders on the Cambodian patronage system, trying to make a peripheral living from the lucrative misdeeds of others.”
The reporter killed this month, Taing Try, was a former soldier associated with a sporadically published newspaper called Today. According to its publisher, Sok Sovann, Taing Try did not write stories but simply rode around the countryside “collecting photos and some information” while also contributing tips to a press association headed by Sovann, and to other local newspapers. He was arrested for extortion in 2010, although he claimed he was innocent at the time.
Sovann denied that Taing Try had been extorting money from loggers at the time of his death, and said local authorities regularly trump up extortion charges against journalists. But he said Today‘s reporters are unpaid and regularly collect small sums of cash to create an income stream.
Unprofessional or unethical journalists are most at risk of attacks like this.
“Very often they just call to get $5 or $10 while other journalists working for well-known newspapers and TV channels have taken a lot of money,” he said in their defence.
Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media, said attacks on journalists are unacceptable and should be condemned, but he noted soliciting bribes is risky behaviour.
“Unprofessional or unethical journalists are most at risk of attacks like this,” he said.
While there are many scrupulous Cambodian journalists who publish serious reports on corruption, land-grabbing and logging, this work is undermined when others call themselves journalists for the purposes of bribe-seeking, Nguon Teang added.
But this behaviour seems unlikely to stop anytime soon, in part because rights groups are loath to be seen as criticising journalists under threat. Although Cambodia’s information ministry has frequently complained about journalist-extorters, it remains relatively easy to register a new newspaper with the ministry and apply for press passes.
The truth is that running a ghost newspaper can be lucrative. K, the journalist who covered illegal logging, has already broken off from the publication where he spent his career to start his own infrequently published paper.
San is now preparing to quit his bureau chief job and start his own media outlet. He has already printed glossy business cards for himself, and is looking to “hire” journalists based in all 24 Cambodian provinces.
“I will not pay them because I never got paid as a journalist, so they will do the same thing I did,” he said. “I can only issue them a press pass.”