Defending democracy digitally The Cambodia Daily reinvents itself as an off-shore multimedia on-line news channel

Defending democracy digitally The Cambodia Daily reinvents itself as an off-shore multimedia on-line news channel

Ingo Günther

The German national radio station breaks its programming hourly for a three minute newsflash highlighting the day’s major stories. On September 5th last year, the newsflash called out the approaching US elections, Brexit and a major crack in Cambodia’s democratic veneer — the closure of The Cambodia Daily which had just reported on the arrest of the main opposition leader and the paper’s own demise as it was being forced to shut down by the government.

International protests and declarations of solidarity resonated throughout the world’s media. The Cambodia Daily, now dead for all intents and purposes, had never been more famous, more loved or more missed. Major newspapers around the world extolled the importance of the paper for Cambodia, its democracy, free speech, and journalism. The Daily had never a missed day of print in its 24-year history. From its start, it served as a springboard for a generation of young journalists that now, decades later, looked back with nostalgia, to when they were young and their journalism seemed to matter.

For a few weeks, The Daily’s final issue could be seen, frozen, on its webpage.   Its Twitter account had gone silent. The same day the paper ceased printing its Facebook newsfeed to 80,000 Khmer followers seemed cut.  In the ensuing weeks though, intermittent messages appeared. The revered Daily began to emerge in bits and pieces online.

In the months since, daily news updates have kept pace with events. Has The Daily risen from the dead?

In February 2018, the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a 10-page report titled ‘Stability and Development First’. It was a response to increasing criticism from the West that had followed its attacks on democratic institutions and increasing human rights abuses. The government-issued statement appeared to reveal that Cambodia’s ruling party was afraid of ‘mice’. The Daily was just such a mouse, albeit inflated to elephantine proportions by the western press, according to the report. Last year, after cooking up a $6 million retroactive tax bill against The Daily, the government had felt secure in its decision to shut down the paper while preserving a plausible deniability of censorship.  The plausible deniability imploded when documents surfaced showing that the Telecommunications Ministry had asked Cambodian internet service providers to block access to The Daily’s website as well as its Facebook and Twitter feeds.

The retroactive tax bit shutdown with an internet censorship coup-de-grace illustrates the ruling party’s fear of independent journalism. Emboldened by its initially successful silencing of The Daily, the administration then ordered an actual audit of the last independent English language paper, The Phnom Penh Post, in October 2017 and came up with another tax bill of several million US dollars (though the source of this information is not always reliable).

The Daily’s Deputy Publisher, Ms. Krisher-Steele, had publicly called their tax bill politically motivated and was promptly slapped with a defamation suit that is still playing out in Cambodian courts. The Phnom Penh Post’s publisher and owners chose a less combative tone and rather than losing their assets outright, were merely forced to sell the paper to a Malaysian businessman who had been hired on earlier occasions to do Cambodia’s ruling party’s bidding.

This technical knockout allowed the government to maintain the Post’s brand and chance to capitalized on its reputation as an independent medium, but they wasted no time in firing most of its staff within days of the takeover, in some cases preempting resignation letters.  After several weeks, the Malaysian transitional owner was replaced and a new name appeared on the Post’s masthead. The PPP could no longer be relied on as an independent newspaper. There are rumors of it being sold yet again, this time to a Chinese real estate developer in Cambodia (once again, the source is not always reliable). Despite the exodus of most western journalists, the now thinner English edition paper, still runs the occasional semi-government-critical piece. For this, The Cambodia Daily’s revived competitive digital presence might take some credit.

The Cambodia Daily’s hard-nosed opposition and resistance to government influence in retrospect was both astute and wise. While the tax bill and censorship order should have done the trick to kill the paper, its (on-line) readers apparently wouldn’t have it. The Daily did not just quietly fade away over time. In fact, its reputation seems to be actually growing if measured by its increasing number of Facebook followers.

Apparently, the government-ordered internet blocking was not as effective, nor as thorough, as hoped. In a bit of a cat and mouse game, IP numbers can be blocked and so can website domain names, but there are free, open source browsers such as Opera that come with their own built-in VPN (Virtual Private Network) that masks the user’s actual location; it’s easier than ever to access outlawed sites. Dynamically assigned IP numbers (equivalent to ever changing phone numbers) require an extra effort to block if it is at all possible. Blocking individual Twitter accounts appears to be just as tricky as blocking Facebook pages. Some speculate that this type of censorship would require much more of an effort that even the Chinese government wanted to face (China has not allowed Facebook or Twitter to operate). To ensure a solid election win and a turnout that would solidify the governing party grip, the government ordered at least 15 internet sites to be blocked for 48h until the elections were over. According to a systems administrator who manages The Cambodia Daily sites that were also shut down, there were a lot of collateral outages as entire IP blocks were taken down in an attempt to silence news sources that used dynamic addressing.  None of the official outlets were affected.  Facebook and government sanctioned news outlets were rife with doctored or edited statements from opposition leaders urging people to vote.  In fact, the exiled and outlawed opposition had urged voters to give the governing party the clean finger and to abstain from voting. Voters’ fingers would get inked after voting to prevent multiple voting. But in Cambodia the inked finger would also get you discounts at fast food restaurants.

Despite the limited daily updates following last year’s closure, The Daily’s online readership has actually increased. Over the last few months it has picked up momentum as more and more articles appear. Perhaps the most astonishing part of this story is that the online publishing started without any hired staff or actual publisher. Ms. Krisher-Steele sees this grass roots journalism as a partially anonymous group effort that she is happy to help coordinate. Many of the Daily’s alumni, now in senior positions of power at major news outlets and agencies, have offered help to fill the void, sending articles that focus on agency reports from Cambodia and on the international perception of Cambodian affairs. 100,000 unique monthly visits on Facebook alone indicates that the new editorial direction is on the right track. It also recognizes that most Cambodians, especially in rural areas, now get their news on their mobile phones. The majority of The Daily’s Khmer news stories are turned into small videos with a voice over reading the news.

Now, that there is no truly independent media left in Cambodia, Facebook’s role is of singular significance. About half of Cambodians own smart phones and about 40% of the population is on Facebook. The now-outlawed opposition party used social media very effectively in local elections in prior years. The government initially struggled to catch up and now actively uses a propaganda apparatus that tries to make the most of the Facebook platform. They also monitor Facebook posts and appear to have a direct connection to administrators to remove critical posts. If that does not work, newly passed laws, especially LANGO, the Law on Associations and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) of 2015 and amendments to the constitution mandating political neutrality have already been used to send several people to jail for posting on Facebook.  Vietnam’s government is equally enthused by and worried about the Facebook platform and has also set up a special task force to monitor Facebook user behavior.  The 10,000-strong military cyber warfare unit, named Force 47, has been active since 2017 to dominate the digital battlefield of opinions and to counter undesirable views.

The organic reincarnation of the legendary paper of record is bound to be a different animal, with a different scope and aspiration. Bernard Krisher, its original founder and publisher, a dyed-in-the-wool newspaperman, had long resisted any web presence. In the mid-1990s, he even pushed to de-register the domain name to deter any expectation of a freely accessible web version.  He once said, “Does The New Yorker have a website ? Of course not ….neither should we. Journalism costs money and they should not work for free.”  Krisher, who was also the Far East representative of MIT’s Media Lab was an early adopter of technology (“My three great loves: My wife, my Volkswagen beetle and my Mac computer”), but foresaw the dangers of information being taken out of context by key-word searches and cut-and-paste reporting early on.

Unlike a print version, The CD 2.0 is not likely to be financially self-sustaining, nor will it be a hands-on journalism training ground. Deborah Krisher-Steele has applied for and received several grants to cover the mostly technical costs of the operation. And even though the content is assembled offshore, it is not without hostile competition. At least five YouTube channels have sprung up last year, claiming to be “The” or a derivative of The Cambodia Daily, trying to dilute and impersonate the original channel, and attempting to confuse users with hundreds of click-bait videos of kids half devoured by snakes and bunnies ensnared in home-made traps.

The plan to turn Cambodia into a single party authoritarian dictatorship has panned out well for the ruling CPP and its chief Hun Sen. Western governments have lamented the development and cut funding, especially for elections which at this point are anything but free and fair. Pending US legislation aims to sanction several members of the CPP oligarchy. Only the Japanese government has been reluctant to criticize and has continued to add to the $2 billion it has already poured into Cambodia over the last 26 years. That is not just to counter Chinese influence, but also helps protect sizable and increasing Japanese investments and industrial engagement. Japan, however,  wisely avoided sending observers or money and thus avoided complicity.  Only the ballot boxes bore testimony in small print of a $7.5 million publicity campaign: “Donated by the Government of Japan”.

The Cambodian descent into authoritarianism and the systematic dismantling of democratic structures seems to mirror developments in other parts of the world, notably Russia, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, etc. The Sunday elections completed the long process of highjacking the state for the governing party in as much as it will guarantee a supermajority to the CPP that will now be able to disassemble the 1993 constitution.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Bangkok Declaration on Human Rights. Even in 1993 very few people took notice of this state-backed attack Universal Declaration of Human Rights by no less than 34 Asian countries from Syria to Japan. While pretending to strengthen Human Rights, they effectively rejected the Universality of Human Rights. Using cultural relativism they declared them to be a burden for social traditions and specific Asian values to be in apparent conflict with western nations’ ideals of individual rights. Today, we see the long shadow of the declaration play out in Cambodia, the one country that had not signed the declaration. Being under UN administration in 1993, it had not been able to send a delegation.

The Cambodia Daily’s renewed existence may have had little direct impact on the recent elections. Still, it plays a vital part in a rapidly-changing society where humans, analog and linear by nature, are to keep their place and pace in an ever changing exponentially  accelerating digital environment. When the wave of authoritarianism finally subsides, The CD 2.0 and its readers will hopefully still be around to make their constructive contribution to Cambodian Democracy 2.0.


Ingo Günther grew up in Germany. He studied Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at Frankfurt University (1977) and sculpture and media at Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf. After blending sculptural media, journalism through TV, print and the art field he founded the first independent TV station (Kanal X) in former East Germany in 1989 and started the Worldprocessor project that same year, subsequently becoming a founding professor at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, professor for media economics at Zurich University of the Arts and visiting professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts and most recently at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design. A version of this article in Japanese was originally published in Foresight magazine, Tokyo.