Talking about becoming a journalist makes Samoeurth Seavmeng’s bright, inquisitive eyes light up from behind her thick-framed glasses. She says the female journalists she looks up to are “fearless.”
“I want to be that kind of person,” she says.
Two years ago, when Seavmeng was studying at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Department of Media and Communications, she landed a coveted internship with the Cambodia Daily. It seemed like the world of journalism was opening up to her.
“When I interned I did big stories about educational system issues, the dropout rate and people leaving school to go work in Thailand,” she says. “I want to be the one to talk about [these issues].”
In a perfect world, she would have gone to work as a reporter for the Cambodia Daily after graduating. And if a job there didn’t pan out, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal; there were other independent media outlets to choose from.
As Cambodia's independent media collapses, young journalism students have few job options. By @quinnlibson.
Seavmeng, and other aspiring journalists like her, came of age at a time when their country was often hailed as a bright spot for press freedom in a region with an otherwise dim record of fostering independent reporting. But in less than a year, that situation has unraveled, leaving scores of keen young reporters wondering if there is still a place for them in Cambodia’s journalism industry.
In September, the Cambodia Daily closed over a looming multimillion-dollar tax bill that was widely considered to be politically motivated. Dozens of independent or opposition-linked radio stations were removed from the air.
That was followed by the sale of the Phnom Penh Post, the country’s last remaining independent newspaper — which was also facing a large tax bill — in a deal that smacked heavily of government involvement and left the newspaper’s ownership details murkily hidden, with its editorial integrity open to questions.
Individual journalists have also been targeted. Two Radio Free Asia reporters, Yeang Sothearin and Oun Chhin are in jail on espionage charges, and Cambodia’s press freedom ranking has, unsurprisingly, plummeted as a result. All of this has hit Cambodia’s independent journalists hard.
Some local reporters have chosen to leave journalism, while others are getting by working as fixers and translators for foreign correspondents — all the while keenly aware that much of this demand will dry up after the international interest in Sunday’s general election has faded.
Seavmeng describes the feeling of watching her dream workplace close in one word: “Hopeless.”
“I think I still want to [be a reporter] but it seems I don’t have a good place to go,” she says. “It’s very sad… Cambodia right now needs journalists to tell them the truth.”
Many of the young Cambodians like Seavmeng who hoped to become journalists are idealists. They say they prioritize a newsroom’s commitment to editorial independence and journalistic ethics above almost all other criteria.
And, after what unfolded at The Phnom Penh Post, the number of outlets that meet their high standards has dwindled to almost zero.
“There are a lot of news media. But they’re not independent at all,” says another recent journalism graduate, who asked not to be identifed.
They would rather put their dreams on hold than risk compromising their values by working at outlets with questionable allegiances.
The graduate worked as an intern at the Phnom Penh Post for two months earlier this year. In the time she spent there, she didn’t shy away from stories that touched on controversial issues such as land rights, a shooting that allegedly involved police, and drug crime.
She had also been hoping that her internship would lead to a job. But that plan is on hold now, based on her assessment of the Post following its sale.
“From what I have read, it’s become one-sided news,” she says. “Some articles, they use only Post Staff and you don’t even know about who has written it,” she adds, referring to a recent crop of un-bylined articles.
One such authorless article argued that Cambodia is not, in fact, in the midst of a crackdown on free media and civil society, but instead merely suffers from an “image problem.”
She is acutely aware of the choices she might face as a reporter that could jeopardize her sense of integrity.
“If I’m going to be a reporter, then I have to follow the rule of the organization,” she says, expressing a concern that editors could censor her work. “That’s why now I’m thinking I’m not going to be a reporter anymore.”
Aun Chhengpor, a journalist at Voice of America’s Khmer service who teaches a course on news literacy at RUPP, says concerns about the future of journalism in Cambodia “keep [him] awake at night.”
“It’s a clear objective fact that this crackdown has very serious impacts on the students, on journalists, on everyone, even the future of the country,” Chhengpor says.
He says it’s “very discouraging” to learn that some of his most promising students feel they have no choice but to leave journalism behind. But he remains hopeful that, with the right guidance, they can still find a way to report important stories.
Not much is certain these days in Cambodia, but one thing is clear: the country is at risk of losing this crop of bright young reporters.
Another young journalist, Vann Sopheakvatey, said she is considering moving abroad to pursue a career in the field.
“I would seek an opportunity overseas rather than in Cambodia,” she said, days before leaving the country for an internship at DW in Germany.