Stiletto by Max Kolbe – February, 2008

Going Going (Publications are) Gone

The American newspaper owner and publisher, who staked his life savings on Cambodia, Michael Hayes has sold a majority stake in the Phnom Penh Post to two Australian businessmen.

Hayes made the sale, for an undisclosed sum, after years of industry doldrums when English-language publications were more likely to be closed, given away or dumbed down into a pretentious trade magazine, than offloaded for a financial return.

Ross Dunkley, chief executive officer of Myanmar Consolidated Media, which publishes the Myanmar Times, and Bill Clough, an Australian miner and oil and gas entrepreneur, have taken a controlling stake in the paper.

The Phnom Penh Post, which publishes every two weeks, was founded by Hayes 17 years ago.

The list of journalists to write for it include Leo Dobbs, Lindsay Murdoch, Hurley Scroggins, Nate Thayer, Robert Carmichael, Pat Falby, Ker Munthit and Luke Hunt while photographers Andy Eames, Rob Elliott and Nathan Dexter were also big contributors over the years.

Dunkley said the Cambodian paper would be run completely separately from the Myanmar publications, which include English and Myanmar-language weeklies.

“The investment in the Phnom Penh Post, through a locally incorporated entity, is being made with complete goodwill,” he said in a statement.  “We believe The Phnom Penh Post is a ‘must-have read’ in Cambodia and we intend to back it fully and our aim is to enhance its reputation.”

Hayes will remain as editor in chief, while the project will be managed by Michel Dauguet, a French national with extensive experience working in Vietnam in media and software development.

But not all is well among journalists within the Kingdom after a Cambodian reporter for Radio Free Asia fled the country after receiving a death threat over his investigations into illegal logging.

Lem Pichpisey fled to Thailand after receiving anonymous calls warning him that he could be killed for his reports, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said.

“I didn’t want to leave my country and stop my reporting, but my life was in danger,” he said in a statement from CPJ.

Meanwhile in New Dehli, The National Herald daily, launched by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, will follow a different fate to the Phnom Penh Post after the ruling Congress Party decided it was no longer viable.

The paper was first published from the northern city of Lucknow in 1938 and played a major role in promoting nationalist sentiment before India’s independence from Britain in 1947.

Nehru was so impressed by his own work he apparently once vowed not to “let the National Herald close down even if I have to sell Anand Bhavan,”  his ancestral home in the northern city of Allahabad.

But like too many papers elsewhere, poor circulation has taken a toll and according to reports Sonia Gandhi, widow of Nehru’s grandson Rajiv, has said enough’s enough.

Further south in Sri Lanka, and violence, threats, intimidation and anti-media remarks by senior politicians are threatening the safety of journalists working in war-torn Sri Lanka, one media rights group said.

“The safety of journalists in Sri Lanka is in serious jeopardy as several serious attacks and anti-media statements demonstrate a lack of respect for the value of media freedom,” the International Federation of Journalists said.

The Brussels-based group said in a statement that the authorities — locked in a bitter war with Tamil Tiger rebels — must initiate immediate and impartial investigations into attacks against journalists and ensure the culprits are brought to justice.

But Sri Lanka’s powerful defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse has called for censorship and criminal defamation laws to prevent journalists from reporting on “negative military news”.

Equally depressing is Kabul where about 200 people marched to the UN office to protest against a death sentence handed to an Afghan reporter and journalism student accused of blasphemy.

The crowd of demonstrators, which included a few dozen children, held up placards showing the face of 23-year-old Perwiz Kambakhsh and chanted slogans including “Perwiz, people are with you.”

Kambakhsh was arrested in late October and sentenced to death sparking an outcry from international and Afghan media rights groups, after downloading and distributing among his fellow students articles that were said to question some of the tenets of Islam, including those related to the role of women.

Demonstrators demanded the immediate release of the reporter and accused “extremists” of engineering the proceedings against Kambakhsh, who did not have legal representation at his trial in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The world’s top media rights groups have called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to intervene in the case while the Afghan senate has endorsed the death sentence.

Death sentences aren’t common in Finland nor is picking on someone’s grandmother but apologies are expected after the Scandinavian country’s media ethics council reprimanded a public television channel which later apologised for a debate in which a participant compared the grandmother of US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to a gorilla.

Ritva Santavuori, a former prosecutor, had been invited to comment on the US presidential race along with several other people on a current affairs show. During the debate, she said Obama’s granny was “ugly”, a “negroid” and resembled “a gorilla”.

She has since offered a public apology, as have representatives of the television channel. Max thinks the sack would be more appropriate.

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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