Fear and freedom of expression BEFORE Charlie Hebdo
Years ago – back when I worked as a local journalist in Cambodia – our newsroom had a slightly ambivalent relation to the freedom of expression. Not because the paper – the oldest and most respected English-languaged newspaper in the country, The Phnom Penh Post – had any reservations whatsoever about the right of journalists, readers and sources to express their thoughts, feelings and opinions. Quite the contrary. We fought everyday to uphold precisely the freedom of expression and we did it well.
It was an absolute minimum of stories that ended up in that category. We wrote many, many controversial stories that the powerful and the rich of the country definitely didn’t like to see in print. When one of those articles was on the way, our editor would jokingly tell us to get the tennis rackets out – so that we could lob the handgrenades back over the fence, when they were thrown in.
There was a certain amount of seriousness in that joke. It wasn’t free of risk to be a critical or investigative reporter in Cambodja. The Cambodian rulers had (and still have) a decades long tradition of meeting even the slightest opposition with murder, assault and rape. And especially our Cambodian colleagues were at risk. They were regularly approached by unsavoury characters who would use the sentence “we know where you live”.
And the authorities kept an eye on us. Our phones were tapped. Outside on the street a row of informers dressed up as motorbike taxies waited and would follow us around when we went to do interviews around town. For a while we also had a so-called office spy. He acted so obviously suspicious that he was quickly kicked out.
When asked critical questions, it was quite common that sources would react with more or less veiled threats. Several times I have sat with police chiefs, government officials and military people who indicated that I could suddenly have an unfortunate accident in the Phnom Penh rush hour traffic.
In those situations I would sometimes omit my Cambodian colleague’s name from the article. But it has also happened once that I didn’t write the article at all – and even asked the editor not to let another journalist write it. Because I was afraid.
The story was about illegal logging in the Northwestern part of the country. Here lay one of the old Khmer Rouge strongholds, Pailin – a place that I would visit regularly at the time. It was pure frontier country, and if the rest of Cambodia was sporadically lawless, Pailin was beyond law and order all together. The old guerillas had very little understanding of the term rule of law and it was a four hours drive to the nearest civilized town.
At one point I met a Belgian mafioso by the name of Dr. Rudi up there. He invited me for a beer and when he himself had had plenty he told me that he had bought the rights to a large amount of logs lying around on a piece of land outside Pailin and that he planned to sell it to Thailand. It was highly controversial, since the Cambodian prime minister had recently promised that he would stop all trade in timber or step down.
So Dr. Rudi told me that if I wrote the story before he said that I could he would make sure I was fired from my job. Beer by beer that threat evolved into that he would make sure the paper was closed, that he would have me thrown out of the country, that he would have me beaten up – and eventually that he would have me killed.
Sure he was drunk, and as such he probably shouldn’t have been taken seriously. But when I got back to Phnom Penh and found out tho Dr. Rudi was connected to I became afraid nevertheless. So afraid that I didn’t write the story.
So yes, I did exactly what Jyllands-Posten is now criticized for doing – among others by Inger Støjberg – because they did not want to print cartoons from Charlie Hebdo in the days following the massacre on the French satirical magazine: I refrained from using my freedom of expression.
And like I said: We did that from time to seldom time at the Phnom Penh Post – a paper that is recognized as the institution that has singlehandedly done the most for the freedom of expression and the free press in Cambodia.
Is it okay that a journalist refrains from writing a story because he/she is afraid or that a paper doesn’t print a cartoon due to considerations for the safety of the editorial staff? Yes!
Is it okay, that the journalist must be afraid because of a story or that the paper is forced to consider the safety of its editorial staff? No!
But they are two different issues and no journalist, cartoonist or editor is duty-bound to risk their life more than they want to. Please understand that, Inger Støjberg, and others likeminded.
On the other hand it is also important to say out loud that the freedom of expression is brought to heel. In Cambodia everyone knew that critical journalists risked their lives and limbs, and therefore human rights organizations and the few clear-sighted donors could act on it. In Denmark, France and other Western countries islam-critical cartoonists and papers now risk being attacked by terrorists. But nobody can act properly on that as long as we maintain that the freedom of expression is intact.
Because it isn’t. Exactly like it wasn’t back then in Cambodia. Should we not face that tragic fact and work on solving the problem instead of criticizing each other for being afraid?