Australian journalist Alan Parkhouse spent six years running newspapers in Cambodia. He was the Editor- in-Chief of The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times, the only two English-language newspapers now published in Cambodia. Parkhouse, who worked in Thailand for many years at the Bangkok Post, The Nation and Asia Times, talked to The BigChilli about his time in Phnom Penh.
I worked at The Phnom Penh Post from 2011 to 2014 and at Khmer Times from 2016 to 2018. My first job in Cambodia was as Managing Editor of The Phnom Penh Post in 2011.
I was offered that job by my good friend Bernie Leo, a former colleague at the Murdoch organisation is Australia who had just moved to Cambodia from Shanghai and been hired as Editor-in-Chief. At that time The Phnom Penh Post had recently been sold to new owners, who took the paper from a fortnightly to a daily, published from Mondays to Fridays.
There was a lack of experienced production journalists there and Bernie needed someone who had worked on daily newspapers, and I had a lot of experience as a sub-editor. I’d worked on daily newspapers in Sydney, London, Hong Kong and Bangkok. On a paper that only comes out once every two weeks, there is time to play with headlines and captions, rewrite stories, choose photos etc. You don’t have that time on a daily paper because every night you have a deadline.
At the time I was offered the job in Cambodia, I had been the chief sub-editor of the Sunday Bangkok Post, which I really enjoyed.
I was offered more money to go to Cambodia, but it was the challenge of working on an iconic newspaper like The Phnom Penh Post that was a major factor in accepting the job and I somewhat reluctantly left the Sunday Bangkok Post. I’d also known Phnom Penh Post founder Michael Hayes since he started the paper and a lot of my friends had worked on it and it was a highly-respected publication.
A couple of months after I started. The paper was majority owned by Bill Clough, a very wealthy mining magnate from Western Australia, and his minor shareholder was Ross Dunkley, another West Australian. Ross was also publisher of the paper and divided his time between The Phnom Penh Post and the Myanmar Times, the newspaper they had in Yangon at the time.
Ross could be a difficult man to deal with and one night started sending Bernie angry emails from Yangon, questioning some of the decisions that had been made. By the following morning Bernie had resigned and that day I was appointed as Editor-in-Chief. Sadly, Ross is now making headlines in Myanmar for all the wrong reasons.
I was Editor-in-Chief for almost four years and am the second-longest serving Editor-in-Chief after Michael Hayes, who founded the paper and ran it for 16 years.
What was it like running a newspaper in Cambodia?
A challenge. At The Phnom Penh Post there was a staff of about 250 as we did a Khmer-language edition every day as well as the English-language edition. One of my first tasks there was to redesign the sister Khmer-language edition, which I did with a Cambodian colleague. That was hard because I’d never worked on a paper I couldn’t read. But I like to think we did a good job and even today, most of those designs are still used by that paper.
A lot of the young western journalists only stayed a year and moved on. Also, the downside was the young western journalists lacked experience and had no background knowledge of Cambodia and had to read books about critical parts of that country’s history. Many of them weren’t even born when the Khmer rouge decimated the country.
On the other hand, the Cambodian staff were mostly a bit older and many of them had lived through the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. Our court reporter, for example, had been a child soldier and carried an AK-47 into battle with his father when they fought with a faction of FUNCINPEC battling Hun Sen’s troops and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in the early ’90s. Another of the Khmer staff had fought with the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier.
It was a challenge getting these experienced locals to work with the inexperienced young journalists from the West. I mostly enjoyed working with the Cambodians more than I did with the often-idealistic young Westerners.
Being able to highlight things like corruption, illegal logging, people trafficking, that sort of thing. During my time as editor of The Phnom Penh Post the newspaper won 24 international media awards, and I’m very proud of that, and proud of the journalists who did those stories. The majority of them were Cambodians. They took a lot of risks. I was also very proud when the Post won the gold award from the World Association of Newspapers for the 68-page special edition I put together to mark the paper’s 20th anniversary. I did that big edition in only three days with two Burmese page designers. I went to Bangalore in India for the awards night - the trophy looks like an Oscar!
Sadly, when I later joined Khmer Times, the publisher didn’t allow us to have the same freedom to report those sorts of stories. The Phnom Penh Post had been independent and we had a free hand during my time there, but at Khmer Times the publisher was very pro-government and had close ties to the ruling party and put a halt to any stories that made those in power look bad.
One of our biggest achievements at The Phnom Penh Post was a series of stories we did about Cambodian maids being abused after they were sent to Malaysia to work.
We won a major international award for our reporting on the maids and what they suffered, and eventually Prime Minister Hun Sen put a halt to the business of exporting maids to Cambodia. It’s not often that newspaper stories make a difference, but that series of stories did.
Did you have any trouble with the government in Cambodia?
Sure. Nobody likes bad publicity or criticism. The Cambodian government spokesman often sent letters to me complaining about our coverage of various issues when I was at The Phnom Penh Post. The government also had their spies in the office – Hun Sen has spoken about this publicly.
Every time the government spokesman sent a letter to me complaining about a story or challenging the facts in a story, I published his letter on the opinion page. I always believed that both sides had a right to express their opinions.
The main government spokesman was actually a nice guy on a personal level and I did a video interview with him once for Khmer Times. He had a job to do, the same as I did. I remember one day when I was running The Phnom Penh Post and my landlord came to warn me before I went to work that Hun Sen had blasted me on TV and radio, repeating my name over and over during speeches he made at a number of functions that day and sounding very angry over a story that had been in the paper.
I expected to be arrested when I went to my office, and the whole newsroom was on edge, but nothing happened. He’d made his displeasure known and thankfully left it at that.
No, but I came close a few times. The closest I came was at The Phnom Penh Post over a story about a very wealthy French property developer, of all things. The guy had bought one of the classic old French mansions in Phnom Penh and planned to redevelop the site this beautiful old building was on. Our property writer learned that the developer had been given permission to build a condominium on the site.
The story in our paper did not say the old building would be pulled down, but the developer claimed it did and threatened to sue and engaged one of Cambodia’s leading law firms.
The CEO and I were summoned to a meeting at the law firm. After asking the rather irate Frenchman to point out the lines in our story saying the old building was going to be torn down – our story didn’t say that – the angry property developer said the offending words appeared in the writer’s private blog on the internet. The CEO and I didn’t even know our property writer had a blog.
The lawyers then stepped in and explained that the blog was not owned by the newspaper and eventually the Frenchman sued the writer and not the paper. I don’t think he ever got his money and the old building is still there, with a condo next to it.
It sounds like you had an interesting time at The Phnom Penh Post. How about the other paper, Khmer Times?
I’d quit The Phnom Penh Post after nearly four years and returned to Thailand and the Sunday Bangkok Post kindly gave me a job again. Around the time I left Cambodia a new English-language newspaper called Khmer Times had started, but it looked very amateurish and no challenge to the Post or the other little English-language publication, The Cambodia Daily.
They started sending me messages asking me to join them and in the following six months three of them came to Bangkok on junkets and we met for drinks and dinner. The three also asked me to come and help them at the new paper. They told me they’d been unhappy at the Post and the new editor who took over from me had put foreign news on page 1 – something I never did – and made it look like the Cambodia Daily.
They were also unhappy with the way the Cambodian reporters had been treated. Eventually the publisher of Khmer Times contacted me and offered me a job. I liked the idea of working with the old team from the Post and accepted.
Amateur week! I had one old friend, a Canadian, in the newsroom who had been working hard trying to set up a proper production system. I sorted that side of it out reasonably quickly. Previously, reporters had been writing stories on their laptops, emailing them to the sub-editors, who would then email the edited stories to the people designing the pages. Things were getting lost and it was chaotic.
I set up a system that connected everybody – a proper newsroom system. The publisher paid for it, but he had no idea how a newsroom was supposed to function.
What was the reaction when you joined a newspaper in opposition with your old paper?
It was a bit difficult. Because Khmer Times was seen as a pro-government paper, plus the fact that the Malaysian publisher had been caught plagiarizing opinion pieces a few months before I started and he copped some really bad publicity on local social media, a lot of people thought I’d sold out and just went there for the money. People said I’d gone to the dark side etc. People I’d never met criticized me on social media, but I just ignored it.
I went there to work with a bunch of people I knew and respected, to try and make Khmer Times a decent newspaper. By the time I left the newsroom had a well-oiled production system in place, the paper looked good, the stories read well and it was beating the Post in a number of areas.
It was a much smaller operation than the Post – a total staff of about 50 compared with about 250 when I was at the Post. I hired some experienced people, including some former colleagues from the Bangkok Post, and we also let the Cambodians do all the reporting, instead of young westerners, as they did at the Post. No one knows a country better than the people from that country.
"Our court reporter had been a child soldier and carried an AK-47 into battle with his father when they fought with FUNCINPEC battling Hun Sen’s troops and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge."
Why did you leave after almost two years?
I became fed up with the publisher, to be honest. When I started at Khmer Times, he was managing a palm oil plantation and spending most of his time there, a couple of hours out of Phnom Penh. He’d also promised a hands-off role after the plagiarism scandal. In my second year he lost the job at the palm oil plantation and became more involved in the day-to-day running of the newspaper.
The thing that infuriated me and the sub-editors the most was he would change stories after they’d been edited and many times I would pick up the paper in the morning and find things changed after signing off on it the night before. Even Rupert Murdoch didn’t do that!
At the same time my young brother in Australia had some health issues, so I resigned and went to Australia briefly before returning to Bangkok. I now write stories for the Asia Times website, working with a team of people I first worked with in Bangkok in the mid ’90s.
Dismal. Neither of the newspapers I worked for make money and I hear their circulation is dropping. Both are now run by people with close ties to the government and neither now do the hard-hitting stories that won the Post about 30 international media awards. There’s no need to censor them as their owners or publishers already do that.
I’m not sure how long either paper will last as they’re both losing money and switching to online, or just doing a website, is something they already have and also make little money from. Like newspapers everywhere, the future looks bleak and the only ones surviving are those publishing good, honest journalism and breaking stories. Neither of the newspapers in Cambodia now do that.