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Two Cambodian journalist win Hellman/Hammett Writer's Award

By: Human Rights Watch Posted: July-23-2008 in
Human Rights Watch

Two Cambodian Journalists Win Hellman/Hammett Writer's Award Rights Group Honors Defenders of Independent Media in Cambodia

Two young Cambodian journalists, Chheang Bopha and Duong Sokha, are among a diverse group of 34 writers from 19 countries to receive the prestigious Hellman/Hammett writer's award, which recognizes courage in the face of political persecution, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Hellman/Hammett grants, administered by Human Rights Watch, are given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution or human rights abuses. The grant program began in 1989 when the American playwright Lillian Hellman willed that her estate be used to assist writers in financial need as a result of expressing their views.

"Chheang Bopha and Duong Sokha represent a small minority among Cambodia's press corps who dare to challenge corrupt and politically biased institutions through their writings and their actions," said Sara Colm, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Bopha, 28, and Sokha, 27, worked as reporters at Cambodge Soir, Cambodia's leading French language daily newspaper. They quit in 2007 to protest the dismissal of a colleague who was fired for writing about a report by Global Witness, an international environmental organization, that documented the alleged complicity of top government officials in illegal logging.

Striking Cambodian staff elected Sokha as their spokesperson to demand that Cambodge Soir reinstate the fired journalist and guarantee editorial independence. The newspaper's owners responded by closing the paper and reopening it several months later under new editorial management. Most of the former employees eventually returned to work without reassurances of editorial independence, but Sokha and Bopha refused despite intense pressure to do so.

They both pursued far less lucrative work in journalism teaching before eventually joining forces with other journalists to start an independent internet publication in Cambodian and French, Ka-Set (www.ka-set.info). Bopha will soon be leaving to pursue a master's degree in journalism at the Training Center for Professional Journalists in Paris.

"In a climate of increased suppression of free expression and attacks against independent media - including from the highest levels of the government - few journalists dare challenge the system," said Colm. "Sokha and Bopha aim to uphold professional media standards in a country with few truly independent media outlets."

Ka-set was the brainchild of a group of four former Cambodge Soir journalists and a Magnum photojournalist. Originally launched in March 2008 with the journalists' own money, the internet publication uses a multimedia approach to cover a wide range of issues - politics, justice, human rights, economics, Khmer Rouge, environment, culture and society. Access is free, and income comes from advertising, although the team, now numbering 10, is currently seeking additional support. "The rare professional skills, ethics and courage exhibited by Duong Sokha and Chheang Bopha should be applauded and encouraged, especially at a time when independent journalism in Cambodia is increasingly at risk," said Colm.

The Cambodian government controls all broadcast media and regularly suspends, threatens, or takes legal action against journalists or news outlets that criticize the government. In addition, reporters risk dismissal, physical attack, or even death for coverage of controversial issues. Earlier this month, for example, gunmen shot and killed Khim Sambo, a journalist for Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience), a newspaper affiliated with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/07/16/cambod19364.htm). "As political power is increasingly consolidated in Cambodia in the run-up to the July 27 national elections, so is control over the media," said Colm.

In June, military police arrested Moneaksekar Khmer editor, Dam Sith, who is also running as a SRP candidate in the elections, after the paper reported on allegations about the current foreign minister's role during the Khmer Rouge regime (hrw.org/english/docs/2008/06/11/cambod19105.htm). In 2007, a reporter in Pursat Province was the victim of two attempted arson attacks on his home, which the local police chief attributed to the reporter's coverage of illegal logging. In June 2007, the government banned Global Witness's report on illegal logging. Journalists who covered the report and people who helped prepare it received anonymous death threats. Bopha holds bachelor's degrees in French literature from Phnom Penh University and in management from the National University of Management. At Cambodge Soir she covered the human rights beat, vividly documenting the plight of Khmer Rouge victims, garment workers, women, ethnic minorities and children. She has also worked as a correspondent for Radio France International, Radio Free Asia, and International Press Service. In 2003, she assisted with the production of a documentary film, "Les Artistes du Theatre Brulé", by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh. Bopha has also taught print journalism at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Sokha studied French at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. During his four years at Cambodge Soir, Sokha was known for his reporting on justice, human rights and politics. In addition, he has worked as a French lecturer at the Royal University of Law and Economics, an event promoter for the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, and a television reporter for "Cambodian Voices," broadcast on TV-9 in Cambodia.

"Though young, both Bopha and Sokha are respected for their leadership and integrity during and after the newspaper strike, as well as their hard-hitting coverage of social issues and human rights," said Colm.

Since 1989, Human Rights Watch has administered the Hellman/Hammett awards, which have been given to nearly 700 writers - including 10 Cambodians - over the 19 years of the program. The Hellman/Hammett program also makes small emergency grants to writers who have an urgent need to leave their country or who need immediate medical treatment after serving prison terms or enduring torture.

For more of Human Rights Watch's work on Cambodia, please visit: hrw.org/doc/?t=asia&c=cambod

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