Isabelle Roughol – The J junkie

The tribulations of a young journalist and writer looking for work

Archive for the ‘My stories’ Category

Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry redacts old news releases

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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.

Thai Foreign Ministry website, press releases page 9, as captured on Feb 5, 2009

Thai Foreign Ministry website, press releases page 9, as captured on Feb 5, 2009

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.

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Written by Isabelle Roughol

Wednesday, 11 February, 2009 at 10:36

Nick Kristof makes Cambodian visit

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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.

Kristof and NYT video journalist Kassie Bracken interview Cambodian schoolkids

Kristof and NYT video journalist Kassie Bracken interview Cambodian schoolkids

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.

Kristof photographs a Cambodian kid in Prey Veng province

Kristof photographs a Cambodian kid in Prey Veng province

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.)

Kristof and I in Phnom Penh. Ignore the bad hair and generally exhausted face; only in movies does the foreign correspondent look hot after getting up at 5 am and working all day under the unforgiving Cambodian sun

Kristof and I in Phnom Penh. Ignore the bad hair and generally exhausted face; only in movies does the foreign correspondent look hot after getting up at 5 am and working all day under the unforgiving Cambodian sun

Written by Isabelle Roughol

Saturday, 3 January, 2009 at 11:31

Got questions for Placebo and other MTV Exit artists?

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On Saturday, I get to interview all the artists of the MTV Exit concert in Angkor Wat: that’s Placebo, The Click Five, Duncan Sheik, Kate Miller-Heidke and Pou Khlaing.

I like to get people’s input when preparing long-standing interviews, so if you have questions for those guys, let me know and I’ll work them in if they fit.

Note: I can think of plenty to ask Placebo, but I frankly don’t know the other guys so well. So do especially share if you’re familiar with Click Five, Duncan Sheik, Kate Miller-Heidke or Pou Khlaing.

Written by Isabelle Roughol

Tuesday, 2 December, 2008 at 22:40

Have questions for the Thai and Cambodian Foreign Affairs ministers?

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The Thai Foreign Affairs minister, Sompong Amornvivat, arrives in Phnom Penh on Monday morning and will hold a news conference with his Cambodian couterpart, Hor Namhong, about the border dispute and military standoff. I will be there. I see the blogosphere is teeming with debates about the situation. What questions would you like to ask of the ministers? Post them in comments by Monday 9 am and I’ll do my best to ask them/include them in my reporting.

Written by Isabelle Roughol

Saturday, 11 October, 2008 at 23:03

A day with Vann Molyvann

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Vann Molyvann (Pardon the poor photo, I was too busy taking notes.)

Vann Molyvann (Pardon the poor photo, I was too busy taking notes.)

There are days — many if you’re lucky — when being a journalist is more than a job, more than the only thing you can picture yourself doing: it’s a privilege. Sunday was a day like that.

I spent a good chunk of the day discovering parts of Phnom Penh I had not yet seen — and another, the Foreign Language Institute, where I was just the day before without fully appreciating it — with Vann Molyvann, the leader of an architecture movement in the 1950s and 1960s that truly built modern Cambodia under the direction of now-retired King Norodom Sihanouk.

As far as tour guides go, he’s definitely as good as it gets. I always find fascinating to meet people who have seen moments in history I have only read about in textbooks. Maybe one day, I’ll be an old woman who can say she’s seen 9/11, Bill Clinton and Vann Molyvann. In the meantime, I just feel privileged talking to them and brushing past history.

For the full story, pick up today’s Cambodia Daily.

Written by Isabelle Roughol

Monday, 22 September, 2008 at 02:28

Posted in Cambodia, My stories

Columbia Missourian delivered on breaking news explosion story, mixing old and new media

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As Ryan Sholin aptly pointed out the other day, in media-blogging it’s best not to do too much navel-gazing on your own news organization. But the Columbia Missourian, my alma mater of newspapers, covered breaking news yesterday in a way that I think is worthy of a post.

I put my reporter cap back on yesterday. Around 11.15 a.m., an explosion razed an entire house in the East Campus neighborhood of Columbia, Mo. In the explosion and the fire that ensued, Carl Sneed, 87, died, and his wife, Merna, 84, was gravely injured. A firefighter was also injured.

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It was just 3 blocks away from my house, which actually shook from the blast. I honestly first thought it was my roommate once again slamming doors, but the sirens of fire trucks and ambulances told me otherwise. I rushed over there, though to his great credit, my roommate, photographer Kuba Wuls, got there even sooner and got some very telling pictures.

I called the Missourian and what ensued was an awesome example of teamwork on a local breaking news story. Our friendly neighborhood citizen journalism team, led by Clyde Bentley, practically a neighbor of the Sneeds, right away put together a Flickr gallery and got information from neighbors. One such neighbor submitted pictures that helped us identify the hero of the day, a firefighter who pulled Merna Sneed from the fire. We had a breaking news burst very quickly on the Web site and many updates throughout the day. The full story at the end of the day and the many sidebars painted a much more complete picture than the competing paper’s. We sent news alerts via text messages. We had reporters and editors working on site, in the newsroom and at the hospital. Convergence reporters brought back video, Kuba brought back wonderful pictures, and I was equipped with my own camera, too. (See below my first ever published picture. The slideshow above is a mix of published and unpublished ones.) See the whole coverage at www.columbiamissourian.com.

Rescue workers wheel Merna Sneed to an ambulance that took her to University Hospital. She had severe burns over more than 30% of her body. ISABELLE ROUGHOL/MISSOURIAN

The most unusual thing that came out of that day’s coverage was an interesting twist on new media meets old media. Everyone in East Campus was asking questions all day. But East Campus is an odd neighborhood with a large student population and just as large a population of elderly people, who may not have the instinct (or even the Internet connection) to check the Web for more information. The Missourian’s Saturday edition being a weekly printed on Thursday nights, we had no way to get the news in print out to the people in time. (Note: We are also cursed with the Friday breaking news.) So we made one up. I use “we” loosely because I’m sure the credit goes to someone; I just wasn’t around when the idea came up so I couldn’t tell you who. Anyways, the Missourian had launched in partnership with the East Campus Neighborhood Association an email newsletter about the neighborhood. We revamped the idea for print. We designed a one-page, front-and-back newsletter with excerpts of our Web coverage, made 300 copies and 8 of us hit the streets, fixing the newsletter to doorknobs with rubber bands.

What really matters in this story is the tragedy of an old couple being stolen their right to a peaceful, quiet death. I’m usually wary about covering such tragedies because there is a fine line between serving the needs of your community and just plain preying on victims. I don’t mean to celebrate this day as an achievement in journalism, and I hope it’s not what this post sounds like. But in the end, I think we served our community right yesterday: when so many people were worried about what was going on and wanted to share who Mr. Sneed was, the Missourian delivered.

The work, of course, continued today. In no particular order and unfortunately not exhaustively, here are some of the people to be credited for these two days’ outstanding work: managing editor Reuben Stern, editor Katherine Reed, editor Clyde Bentley, assistant editor Katie Fretland, reporter Sean Sposito, reporter Matt Harris, news editor and Web site wizzard Jake Sherlock, photographer Kuba Wuls, photography director Rie Woodward, photo editing staff (don’t even know all your names, I’m so sorry), photographer Katie Barnes, editor Liz Heitzman, editor Jeanne Abbott, production chief Joy Mayer, convergence editor Mark Lewis, reporter Jonathon Braden, reporter Annie Harp, reporter Lauren Fredman, convergence editor Beth Androuais, convergence reporter Jenn Herseim, convergence editor Jennifer Leong, circulation yesmen Rob Weir and Bruce Moore, photographer Joshua A. Bickel, citizen journalist Jackie Kreigh … (Yes, we are a huge newsroom, and that helped.) Those are only the ones I personally saw work or whose credit I could find on the Web site. I know there are plenty more. I am both proud and humbled to be a part of this team.

Written by Isabelle Roughol

Sunday, 16 March, 2008 at 03:30

The court, the jail and the toy factory

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Another long day in court, and I don’t have the strength to write much more than a stream of consciousness, a bit like NPR’s Radio Lab, which I am now discovering and I sense will fast become a deliciously guilty pleasure. The way the editing mirrors the thought process of a human brain is a gem of storytelling. Try it, get converted.

So, long day in court. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Isabelle Roughol

Wednesday, 4 July, 2007 at 03:02