Friday, October 4, 2013

Failure of the English language Fourth Estate in Cambodia Part 1


“Access to information is essential to the health of democracy, ensuring that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation.”

- How many expatriate NGOs claiming to ‘rescue’ poor Cambodians are effectively pursuing the goals outlined on their websites?

- How many NGOs are well-meaning in their rescue missions, basically useless in achieving their goals, but do little or no harm?

- How many foreign donor funded NGOs in Cambodia are guilty of human rights abuses?

Who in Cambodia asks such questions?

NGOs themselves have a vested interest in not asking them. If such questions can be asked of one NGO they might (and should) be asked of all NGOs.  Not a desirable state of affairs for any NGO whose lofty online mission statements are not matched by results in the real world.

Why do the English language newspapers in Cambodia not ask these questions? This failure of the Fourth Estate has puzzled me for some time. Is it:

 (a) because the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post fear of being sued by a cashed-up NGO 


(b) because they do not wish to alienate the NGOs upon whose patronage the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post rely. 

Or is there an explanation that has not occurred to me?

If it be the fear of being sued, this strikes me as journalistic cowardice of the worst kind. A newspaper can’t be sued for asking questions and publishing answers or the fact that no answers are forthcoming. If it is the fear of loss of advertising revenue I can well understand the dilemma. Will NGOs wish to advertise in a newspaper that runs stories critical of NGOs? Or, if not even critical, stories that raise questions and record which NGOs refuse to answer any questions at all that require that they be publicly transparent and accountable for their actions?

TIME magazine regularly carries ads for Somaly Mam’s Foundation. These are full page ads dominated by a heavily photoshopped photo of Somaly Mam looking as much like a movie star as possible. Such ads are not cheap. Would TIME magazine dare publish an investigative piece about Somaly and her NGO? I doubt it. If TIME did, if an investigative journalist from the magazine started to ask a few questions s/he would very quickly find out that Somaly’s announcement that a police raid of her AFESIP centre in Phnom Penh in 2004 resulted in 8 girls being murdered was a lie. Such a whopping lie should, you would think, destroy Somaly Mam’s credibility entirely or, at the very least, raise questions about how much of the story she tells about her own life is true and how much has been made up in order to help her raise money for a good cause?

Now, if Somaly Mam is essentially a liar whose lies are an essential part of her money raising modus operandi and if her Foundation is doing good work with victims of sex slavery, an argument could be made, I suppose (though I would not do so) that her lies are harmless if they result in her Foundation being able to help girls what are genuinely in need of help. But if Somaly can tell whatever story she likes in order to raise money, why can’t other NGOs do the same? If Somaly can lie about the police raid in 2004, why can’t Citipointe church lie about rescuing ‘victims of human trafficking’? Why can’t all NGOs tell whatever lie they like in order to keep the sponsor and donor dollars flowing in – without which dollars they cannot do the good work they outline on their websites?

How can a sponsor or donor know which NGOs in Cambodia devoted to the ‘rescue’ of girls are genuine and effective and which are not? Is a full page ad in TIME magazine evidence of effectiveness or of the NGO spending a substantial part of the money it rakes in from donors on self-promotion?

With 18 years of experience in Cambodia I know of many low key NGOs that are doing good and effective work. They run on shoe string budgets, do not announce in full page TIME advertisements how good and effective they are but just get on with the job in hand quietly and efficiently. These NGOs are to be applauded. It is the NGOs that lie and deceive sponsors and donors that I believe should be exposed as fraudulent. This is especially true of NGOs like Citipointe, who believe that girls are better off living in an institution, alienated from their family, religion and community and being force fed the church’s own particular warped brand of the Christian faith; NGOs that can rely on an incompetent Ministry of Social Affairs to allow them to essentially steal the children of poor Cambodians with impunity.

If the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily will hold neither Somaly Mam nor Citipointe church accountable for the lies they tell, all NGOs in Cambodia are free to tell whatever lie they like secure in the knowledge that they will suffer no shame at all of exposure by the media.

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