Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.3

October 9, 2003


Letter from Phnom Penh: Student journalist covers election

Susan Font was a student in the intensive one-year Graduate Diploma in Journalism program last year, and won a $20,000 fellowship from IDRC, International Research and Development Canada. It was based on a proposal she submitted to work in Cambodia on an English-language newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post.

She has stayed in touch with the chair of the department, Enn Raudsepp, and sent him an account of her adventures.

Dear Enn,

My work in Phnom Penh has kept me the busiest that I have ever been. I have written, with ever-increasing speed, about poverty, politics, corruption, murder, homelessness, prostitution, education, riots, economics and rice.

When I first arrived here, I wrote a number of stories about education. One story was about a scholarship program for girls in a rural province. Another covered a national education strategy, and yet another was about a floating library for children in one of the most remote floating villages on a river off the Tonle Sap.

The government is stressing the necessity of improving the education of girls and young women, [in] direct response to the country’s high infant mortality rate, which at about 95 per thousand births is among the highest in Asia, according to USAID (2003). [Raising] the secondary-school education rate among girls could lower this rate because of awareness of infant feeding, prenatal care and safe birthing practices.

With the launch of the election campaigns two weeks after my arrival, it became necessary that I write quite a number of election-related stories, along with the rest of the reporters at the Phnom Penh Post.

My beat was stories about election violence, killings and intimidation. One story exposed a plan of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to ensure that it win the election no matter what the ballots pointed to, as outlined in some notes I obtained and a number of sources who worked within the CPP.

The notes were minutes from a secret meeting at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house held in early July, during which, he threatened to “open the blood way” if he did not win the election. This phrase has its origins in war language and refers to using force to control people and outcomes.

I also reported how he had arranged for over 70 local organizations with accredited election observers in them, all pro-CPP and the majority of them set up within the last year, to support a statement he would issue saying that there had been a “free and fair election,” no matter what the truth.

I received enthusiastic thanks from people here and it drew me in to a larger group of sources who suddenly trusted me. I have gained access to many high-ranking officials and ministers here from the three leading parties, including the Cambodian royalty, and in truth; I have built up an excellent base of sources and some friends.

I have learned so much about how the government functions here and how important politics is to the people. I have grown to care very much about Cambodians. I have learned to respect much of what they are trying to achieve and I want to help to protect the honest attempts at redevelopment.

In addition, getting out into the rural provinces and speaking with the farmers has been as informative as speaking with ministers on occasion. I am aware that the knowledge that I have gained here would not easily transplant into another country. However, my experience and skills would translate of course. Yet I have some reasons to stay here, I believe.

At the end of August, several board members of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) elected me as a new executive board member. Some of our main aims are to help to build up a level of protection for Khmer journalists here.

Despite five men mugging me about a month ago, ducking for cover from machine-gun fire on my first full day at work, and having been rather sick several times, I would not change my experiences here for anything. I am making a difference through my work here and it is changing me for the better in return.

All the best,


If you would like to know more about how Susan successfully applied for her grant, go to the CTR web site, at http//, click on Archives, and find the issue for Jan. 30, 2003.