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Forget what I just said. I’m back in France! I left Cambodia last week in a bit of a rush and am now looking for work in Europe. The full story of why isn’t worth a mention here, but all is good and my beloved France has been quite welcoming, despite my having forsaken her four years ago. The good news is this gives me time to give my portfolio a proper redesign (self-hosting, self-coding et al.) and my blog some much needed attention. The bad news is… well, I’m unemployed.
The Frontline Club, the London-based charity “championing independent journalism,” has invited me to blog on its new website about my life and work in Cambodia. That’s an invitation I couldn’t refuse, but since it is redundant with this blog, I will stop posting here. (You may have noticed I kinda already have.)
This site will become primarily my portfolio, with occasional postings showcasing my work. All blog archives will remain here too.
I’d be happy to count you as my readers on Frontline at http://frontlineclub.com/blogs/isabelleroughol/. It’s been slow starting but should be going good from now on…
The Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry changed a contentious word in 18 old news releases still available on its website, apparently in reaction to a news article, effectively redacting a record without acknowledgement of the edit.
For most of my time as a reporter in Phnom Penh, I have been covering the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple. The temple belongs to Cambodia by a final and unequivocal decision of the International Court of Justice issued in 1962, no question about that. Even the Thai government’s official position is to not contest the temple’s ownership. The dispute is over 4.6 square kilometers of land (mainly jungle with leftover landmines) near the temple. The legal and political details would bore my non-Cambodian readers, but suffice it to say the dispute, which has historical implications dating back decades if not centuries but heated up last July, has fed deep nationalistic sentiment on both sides of the border.
I noticed in the months spent reporting on this that Thai officials increasingly used the Thai name for the Cambodian temple —Phra Viharn— when I’d heard (and read) them used ‘Preah Vihear’ before. That’s the Cambodian term and also the one most frequently used in English/French, as far as I’ve seen. The name issue surfaced as a problem in border negotiations back in November, and again last week. I considered writing about that, but the Bangkok Nation beat me to it with a quite well written article on Feb 4. They showed that the Thai government frequently used “Preah Vihear” in the past, as recently as in July press releases still available on the ministry Web site.
Well, lo and behold, when I went to look for those uses of the offending word, I (almost) couldn’t find them. (Almost) every use of the words “Preah Vihear” had been redacted and changed to the Thai spelling “Phra Viharn”! It seems somebody went through the trouble of editing the public historical records of official ministry communication. How do I know this? How do I know my memory isn’t shaky or the Nation reporter wasn’t lying? It seems the Thai MFA’s Web editing software automatically updates the datestamp when the file is changed. If that’s on purpose, I commend the architect of this system for their care for transparency. So all those communiqués are still in chronological order of their original release but with a new datestamp of “February 4, 2009.” Just see the screengrab.
I counted 18 news releases modified. Apparently someone didn’t know about the “Find and Replace” function because a few “Preah Vihear” references remain within the text of at least two communiqués I went through. I know PR isn’t journalism, especially government PR, but the whole process just seems dishonest to me, and a bit sneaky (besides smacking of limited Web competence). PR has ethical rules, too, and redacting history surely doesn’t qualify as ethical. I’ll let you be the judge.
I had the privilege to meet New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof this past weekend, as he was inaugurating the school he and his family donated in Prey Veng province. (Full disclosure: the school building program is part of an NGO chaired by my boss.)
Kristof has reached this blessed stage where he actually gets paid to write his opinion and doesn’t have to check his every word for potential bias. I don’t know a single journalist who hasn’t, at least once, envied this position.
Meeting him reminded me of this point I’ve so often made in private conversations, and that I now feel should be made publicly (albeit not very eloquently because I’m still recovering from New Year’s Eve). I often feel that journalists (maybe myself included, unvoluntarily) have been so hurt by accusations of bias, are so afraid of their stories appearing one-sided, that they’re afraid of saying things as they are. Calling a cat “a cat” as we say in France. As someone commented on Kristof’s blog (I can’t find it now), the New York Times won’t even call water-boarding torture, resorting instead to an easy out (“which many consider to be torture”). Case in point.
So reading Nick Kristof’s columns is a breath of fresh air, even if I do sometimes agree with the critics and suspect that his political opinions and advocacy objectives can occasionally warp his reporting behind the columns. I like to read someone who calls the evils of the world what they are, even if, sure, nuance here and there could help. After all, his job is somewhere between journalism and advocacy so he gets to. And someone’s got to. So meeting him was a pleasure and an honor, and I couldn’t resist getting a photo together. (I managed to resist with a room full or rock stars last month so that’s high praise.)