Bopha Phorn | 2013 Courage in Journalism Award

The Cambodia Daily, Cambodia.

‘If I stop being a journalist, I stop breathing’.

Bopha Phorn has found a way to deal with some of the challenges of being a female reporter in Cambodia.

“I have to learn how to make myself deaf,” she said, “to not hear anything.” It’s a strategy Phorn, a reporter for independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily, uses to block out comments from colleagues about her age and her marital status. It’s how she steels herself when her family questions her chosen profession.

But there are some sounds Phorn, 29, can’t block out: the spray of shots from assault rifles, for instance, that nearly killed her when she was reporting on environmental exploitation in the Cambodian jungle.

In April 2012, Phorn was investigating claims of illegal logging in a protected area of Cambodia with another journalist, Olesia Plokhii, and an environmental activist, Chut Wutty, when gunmen began firing at the vehicle with AK-47s. “I was on the telephone with Bopha and Olesia at the very moment,” said Kevin Doyle, editor in chief of The Cambodia Daily. “I heard the bullets hit the car. I was sure they were all dead.” Phorn and Plokhii initially jumped out of the vehicle when the soldiers started shooting. Preparing for the worst, Phorn wrote her mobile telephone number on her torso. In the event that she was killed, she hoped to be identified.

But when the two journalists realized Wutty was still in the car, they returned amid gunfire to administer first aid. The soldiers were instructed, within earshot of the journalists, to “finish the job.” The women escaped through the jungle after trying in vain to save Wutty. He died from his injuries, but “their courage helped them survive,” said Doyle. “In my many years working in Cambodia, I know of no other similar act of bravery by a journalist,” he said.

This trip to the jungle was supposed to be an easy assignment for Phorn; Doyle wanted to give her a break from Phnom Penh after she had received threats via telephone from high-level officials for her coverage of the drug trade.

The threats were “a serious development,” said Doyle, “even for journalists long experienced in the reporting culture in Cambodia.” Those threats are among many Phorn has received in her career. She remembers when she was first threatened with a lawsuit when she was covering land issues. “The first time I heard that I was very scared, a few years ago,” she said. “And then I was like, ‘This is a journalist’s life.’ But now I feel I get used to it.”

Phorn said she understands the unfortunate corruption that affects Cambodia’s court system, as well as other aspects of society. “If you have power, you have money,” she said. “You can bring someone to the court easily.”

Luckily, Phorn managed to stay out of court. But soon after, she received a physical threat while she was covering another land-related issue with a colleague. During a visit to a company involved in the story, Phorn’s colleague was punched in the stomach by a security guard, and the guard told Phorn she should quit her job as a journalist. Buoyed by her passion for her job, Phorn offered a gutsy reply: “No, I love journalism!”

“But I was so scared,” she said. “I called my editor. I didn’t know what to do.” After calming down and safely getting back to her office, Phorn reported on the incident for The Cambodia Daily. Phorn has faced threats from Cambodian elites, criticism for her reporting and intimidation from anonymous sources. Her reporting on land and environmental issues, as well as her stories about criminal activity and human rights abuses, have made her the target of life-threatening attacks such as the one in the jungle.

Phorn is not alone. Cambodian journalists “face growing dangers in connection with their coverage of human rights and environmental issues,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Cambodia is increasingly dangerous for journalists in general, with an unstable democracy under the autocratic leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen. According to Reporters Without Borders, information in the country is becoming more limited, and authoritarianism and censorship are on the increase.

“In general the journalists in Cambodia don’t have freedom to report on everything they want,” Phorn said. “Censorship is a big problem. … Most of the media is pro-government media. … so they don’t want to report anything that might affect the government.”

Cambodia’s poor economy also presents financial and infrastructure challenges for independent coverage. Physical attacks on journalists increased in 2012, according to Freedom House. Laws regulating the media in Cambodia are vaguely written and unevenly applied, the independent watchdog organization reported. The 1993 constitution grants free expression; however, media personnel are often prosecuted under a 1995 press law that prohibits reports that threaten political stability.

“Bopha is a tenacious reporter operating in a challenging environment,” said Martin Petty, senior correspondent for Reuters. Cambodia is “a country where those who cherish free speech and are brave enough to expose wrongdoing and scrutinize powerful individuals are increasingly the targets of intimidation by those who stand to lose when the truth is told.”

Potential danger didn’t hamper Phorn’s interest in journalism. “I wanted to be a journalist when I was young,” she said. “Less than 10. Maybe 8 or something.”

Phorn grew up in a remote area of Cambodia with little exposure to newspapers or television. But she eventually learned journalists weren’t highly regarded. “Journalists in my country, their reputation is not good,” she said. “They always say journalists are taking money in exchange for stories.” Phorn landed her first job as a journalist at Deutsche Presse-Agentur, a German press agency in Cambodia, when she was 21. She switched to The Cambodia Daily not long after.

In addition to the public perception of journalism in Cambodia, Phorn faced resistance from her family. “They said, ‘Journalism is very dangerous. You should quit,’ ” she said. Phorn does not share information with her family about the lawsuits and threats she has received over the years.

Phorn remains motivated in her career because she feels that journalism helps people. “I think my articles have effects on the government and the people, too,” she said. “I enjoy being a bridge between the news and the people.”

Phorn hopes to cover more crime and corruption stories in the future but says it “takes a lot of effort and determination” to take on dangerous assignments; she still worries about her safety.

Despite discouragement from her family and the life-threatening danger that she has confronted, Phorn continues to stay “deaf” to criticism; she is committed to journalism and has taken up some of the most controversial stories of her day. “I feel like if I stop being a journalist, I stop breathing,” she said.

So Phorn blocks out what she can in a career that has proved difficult at times. “I like the way I live,” she said. “… And doing what I want to do. … So I don’t care what people say.”

In an exclusive interview with the IWMF (see embedded video on the right), Phorn talks about her inspiration to become a journalist, the challenges of being a Cambodian woman journalist, and underreported issues in Cambodia.

Phorn is the first winner of the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award from Cambodia.

Follow Bopha Phorn on Twitter: @bophaphorn

This article was written by Lindsey Wray, based on an interview conducted by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.

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