Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Self censorship by English language newspapers in Cambodia?

I remain unsure if the refusal of the English language media in Cambodia to investigate the illegal removal of Rosa and Chita more than five years ago, and to report on its findings, stems from the fear of being sued by Citipointe church or the fear that criticism of NGOs might affect circulation and advertising revenue.  

It is clear from their lack of response to my two ‘open letters’ (26th August and 4th Sept.) that neither the Cambodia Daily nor the Phnom Penh Post will investigate the removal of two girls from their materially poor family over five years ago.

Neither newspaper has accepted my offer to provide them with a colour photocopy of the ‘contract’ signed by the mother with her thumb print. This ‘contract’ formed the supposed legal basis for the removal of the parents’ daughters in mid 2008 – until the fraudulent nature of the ‘contract’ was revealed and Citipointe decided that these two girls (aged 5 and 6 at the time of their removal) were not victims of poverty but ‘victims of human trafficking.’

The newspapers’ refusal to view and have legally evaluated this key piece of evidence is an abrogation of one of the fundamental duties of a journalist – to look, with a dispassionate eye, at the facts. To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”

I do not think it is too much of a stretch of the word’s meaning to describe the illegal removal of two daughters from their materially poor family by wealthy Christians as ‘evil’. Edmund Burke’s admonition is also relevant here:

“All that is needed for the forces of evil to succeed is for enough men to do nothing.”

‘To do nothing’, to remain silenct, is the position the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post have adopted.

Why this is so, why neither newspaper is interested in demonstrable fact, in evidence (the 31st July 2008 ‘contract’ qualifies as both) I can only conjecture. Is it because they fear being sued by Citipointe church for asking questions? Or is it that they do not want, for reasons of self-preservation, to publish articles critical of NGOs that make up a significant part of their readership? When did either newspaper conduct any significant investigation into the modus operandi of any NGO in Cambodia? Or the appropriateness of having so many NGOs in Cambodia who, whilst providing a wonderful lifestyle for individual NGOs, do little or nothing to improve the lot of the poor Cambodians they are supposedly here to help? (In 18 years of visiting Cambodia the malnourishment level sits at 40% and  tens of thousands of Cambodians have had their land and homes stolen from them despite the mountains of reports written by NGOs!)

As far as Citipointe being litigious, indeed the church is. Twice it has threatened to sue me. It has not done so as this would necessitate producing, in a court of law, evidence that the church’s removal of the girls from their family was lawful and that my suggesting that it was unlawful was defamatory. Citipointe does not want a spotlight of this kind to be shone on its activities in Cambodia. Journalists in Australia would start to ask questions of the kind I have been asking for five years and which both the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post refuse to ask. Or, if the questions have been asked by either newspaper, refuse to report on Citipointe’s refusal to answer them.

In the event that either newspaper had decided to ask a few questions, both would have been remiss to presume that all or any of what I have written in my blogs is true. Indeed, a competent journalist should not take my word for anything at all. S/he should just deal with the facts (incontrovertible facts) which, in brief, are these:

(1) An NGO removed two girls from their family in mid 2008.

(2) After the removal the NGO got the mother of the two girls to place her thumb print, on 31st July 2008, on a document that she could not read.

(3) The NGO then told the mother (and myself, in writing) that in accordance with the ‘contract’ the church intended to keep the girls (aged 5 and 6 at the time) until they are 18 and that her visitation rights were limited to 24 hours per year. 

These are facts. They are not opinions. They are demonstrably true. Citipointe would not argue with them. Indeed, the church could not argue with them as the facts are all well documented in email exchanges and recorded conversations.

Only one question would have been needed to be asked to kick off an investigation by either newspaper:

“Is this 31st July 2008 ‘contract’ legally binding under Cambodian law?”

A lawyer from either newspaper could have looked at the ‘contract’ and provided a legal opinion as to its validity in accordance with Cambodian law. If the lawyer had said, “This is not a contract that gives the NGO the right to hold the two girls contrary to the express wishes of the parents,” the next question for an investigative journalist would have been a no-brainer:

“What legal authority did Citipointe have, in mid-2008, to remove the two girls from their family and retain custody of them despite repeated requests from their parents that they be returned to their family?”

Nothing in what I have suggested here would have required that either newspaper believed anything that I have written about this matter on two blogs. All that was required was the asking of a few questions, the writing of a few emails and on obtaining a legal opinion in relation to the July 31st 2008 ‘contract’. Standard operating procedure for any journalist and tasks that would not have taken more than a few hours to perform.

The Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post have shown no interest in (a) viewing the ‘contract’, (b) in asking their newspaper’s lawyer to read and assess it (it is less than one page long!) and (c) asking Citipointe what legal authority the church had to remove the girls in mid 2008 and hold them contrary to the express wishes of their parents.

If Citipointe had not able to or refused to provide evidence for the legality of its actions in removing Rosa and Chita in mid-2008, (not an unreasonable newspaper request) the next port of call for a journalist would have been the Ministry of Social Affairs. MOSAVY played no role at all in the removal of Rosa and Chita in mid 2008 but a competent journalist should not and would not have taken my word for it. S/he would have asked the Ministry when and why it became involved and how and why two girls whose family sought short term assistance as a result of their poverty (this is clear in the 31/7/08 ‘contract’) came to be re-defined as ‘victims of human trafficking’?

If a Cambodia Daily or Phnom Penh Post journalist had received any response at all from the Ministry, s/he would have learned that it was fully 15 months (and multiple requests from Chanti and Chhork that their daughters be returned, all well documented) before MOSAVY gave Citipointe retrospective permission to remove the girls – in late 2009.

The next question for a Cambodia Daily or Phnom Penh Post journalist could then have been:

“What legal authority did Citipointe have, between July 2008 and Nov 2009 to hold the girls contrary to the parents’ oft expressed wishes that they be returned?”

This is where, my own experience tells me, the trail being pursued by a competent journalist would have gone dead. Both Citipointe and MOSAVY, if they deigned to answer questions at all, would have told the journalist that when Citipointe registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the church had the right to remove the girls, any girls, from their families without providing a reason or evidence that such removal was in the best interests of the children themselves.

In accordance with this logic, any NGO registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is free remove the children of poor parents from their families without being answerable or accountable MOSAVY, to Chab Dai (of which Citipointe is a member) or to anyone else – including, to date, LICADHO. Is this not a story worthy of at least a few phone calls and emails? In the case of the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post it seems not!

NGOs must and should be held accountable for their actions and activities in Cambodia. This requires both transparency and an adherence to the precepts of accountability by NGOs. It also requires that the media, in this instance the English language press, ask questions and not allow itself to be intimidated into silence either by the fear of being sued or because criticism of NGOs might damage newspaper circulation or advertising revenue. (If there is a third possible reason for inaction I would love to know what it is.)

The NGO community should, I believe, welcome the expose of sham, incompetent NGOs that abrogate the rights (both legal and human) of the Cambodian people. These NGOs should not be welcome as part of the NGO community.

The media could play a very important role in exposing fraudulent NGOs. Both the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post are failing to hold NGOs accountable or to demand transparency from them.  And so it is, in the absence of any form of media oversight, that Citipointe church can continue to hold Chanti and Chhork’s daughters without either parent knowing why the girls were removed in the first place or what they must do to have them returned to their care.

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