The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia – Background and history

Journalism and the region until the 1950s

Cambodia had been fought over for centuries by the Vietnamese and Siamese who vied for influence and control over its lands until the 19th century arrival of French colonialists in Indochina. They carved up the region with five protectorates annexed under Paris that spread from Thailand’s eastern flank and the south of China to the South China Sea: Cambodia, Laos, Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China.

Adventurers, writers, artists and journalists accompanied colonial expansion but most gravitated to Saigon, Hue and Hanoi, the three capitals along Indochina’s eastern seaboard. Cambodia, for the most part, remained a sleepy backwater valued for its grand Khmer temples that date beyond the 9th century and its vast waterways viewed as a potential trade route into China that linked the French colonies via the Mekong River.

The rains of the wet season flood an area the size of Denmark. A 13th century Chinese visitor once noted “you can sail across Cambodia”. But the true effects of Cambodia’s low-lying ranges and enormous tributaries were to isolate its people from the rapid developments that would engulf Indochina not long after the end of World War I.

Japanese imperialism fanned across the region and led to Tokyo gaining total control of most of South East Asia by 1941. In Indochina, the Vichy French were responsible for administering the five colonies while communist nationalists took up arms and sided with the allies. The Thais and most of the Malays sultanates also sided with the Axis powers.

However, victory in 1945 proved hollow for nationalists bent on ousting both the Japanese and French. The Issarak movement was formed to fight the French and independence in Cambodia was finally achieved peacefully by Norodom Sihanouk in 1953. Laos followed suit soon after, and a year later the French gave up on their remaining eastern Indochinese territories. Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China were split into North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel following the French defeat of 1954 at Dien Bien Phu.

Three journalists who had cut their teeth as correspondents and soldiers in World War II won acclaim over this period for a swathe of reporting from Indochina and would become known as the Three Musketeers by communist authorities: Robert Shaplen of the United States, Denis Warner from Australia and Britain’s Don Wise.

Other correspondents included fellow Briton Felix Greene and his brother Graham, then a struggling novelist, and the Australian journalist and author Wilfred Burchett. Burchett was often pilloried by his peers as a communist propagandist; others viewed him as a victim of the press establishment. But the fact remains that his Bulgarian wife would later admit to being a KGB spy.

International observers were deployed as part of the agreement reached at the Geneva Conference of 1954 to oversee the Geneva Accords. The Accords resulted in a ceasefire throughout south and north Vietnam, and allowed French forces to withdraw from the north and the communist Viet Minh from the south. All troops were to be withdrawn from Cambodia and Laos.

From the 1950s to the late 1960s

For the next decade and a half Cambodia enjoyed a remarkable level of peace and stability compared with its Francophone neighbours. Today those times, when the country was led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, are looked back on as its golden years.

According to French historian Henri Locard, international wire services Reuters, Associated Press (AP), Agence-France Presse (AFP), and United Press International (UPI) had established small bureaus at Hotel le Royale by the early 1960s.

No formal club or press association then existed, but the camaraderie was strong, if notorious to the local authorities, with informal sessions at what is now known as the hotel’s Elephant Bar, and lengthy poolside parties which set a benchmark in journalistic traditions.

As the decade wore on Cambodia became a haven for worn-out correspondents covering the war in neighboring South Vietnam. Regulars included Scotsman Jim Pringle, Australian cameraman Neil Davis, New Zealander Kate Webb, Dutch photographer Hu Van Es, and US photographer Sean Flynn and his great friend Tim Page.

Each year Neil Davis wrote on the inner page of his diary: ‘One crowded hour of glory is worth a lifetime with no name.’

March 1970 onward

But the great haven of peace and tranquillity was nearing an end as Washington expanded its bombing operations into Cambodia where communist North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong had established their own military havens, with the complicity of Norodom Sihanouk. March 1970 saw a coup led by General Lon Nol, whose new republican government received immediate if limited support from the US, ending more than a millennia of monarchy. Cambodia’s descent into civil war picked up momentum.

Communist forces backed by China and North Vietnam, and led by Pol Pot, were making further inroads into Cambodia’s countryside, and as conflict with the Khmer Rouge escalated so did the number journalists seeking a story.

“They did not have a club, but their solidarity was strong,” said You Bo, who in the 1970s was a reporter with the Khmer Independent newspaper and maintained close links with the overseas press corps. “And many of them were killed by the Khmer Rouge.”

In the first months of the new government more than a dozen journalists were captured and most killed by Khmer Rouge, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.

While relations between the press corps and the Khmer Rouge would indeed prove deadly, the government in Phnom Penh was hardly an ardent supporter of free speech. Chhang Song, former information minister in the Lon Nol regime, said the Cambodian government issued strict controls on the press tasking 15 officials to censor foreign newspaper copy and control the foreign wire services.

“What the government doesn’t want the press to say, the press should not say,” he said.

Chhang Song told the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia that up to 300 journalists were in-country by early 1970.

“[Including] all the big wire services, radio, TV, and newspapers – they sent their own correspondents to Cambodia,” he said. “At that time we also had the Chinese wire service Xinhua too. Two sections controlled the press, civil and military.”

This, he said, was done through the Committee de liaison avec la press etranger.

“I knew everything about foreign correspondent activity in this country. Some were blocked by the police, some were arrested by the Khmer Rouge,” he said. “At that time our authorities never arrested any foreign journalists, but the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong did.”

Chhang Song recalled too that he closed 10 newspapers in a single day during his brief tenure as minister.

More than 30 correspondents died covering the war in Cambodia between 1970 and 1975. Most were Japanese, and all the journalists would meet at Le Royale and contribute financially to retrieve the body, inform relatives and colleagues, and ensure their remains were sent home where possible.

Much of this burden fell on UPI’s Kate Webb and AP’s Robert Man. A US citizen, Man had, says Chhang Song, “the loudest voice in protecting foreign correspondents here. Robert is a very brave man.”

The dead included Japanese, Americans, Australians Indians, Dutch, French, and of course Cambodians. To list a few and not all would be inappropriate and some of the people already named have died on battlefields elsewhere. A memorial for those journalists killed in Cambodia during the war has been erected outside Le Royale.

Perhaps the most heartening of stories that emerged from this period involved Kate Webb. She was captured along with five others who went missing in early April 1971. A week later hopes had thinned, then Cambodian troops found several bodies, including that of a Caucasian woman, whom they identified as Webb. Her body, bearing a single bullet wound in the chest, was cremated on the spot in accordance with Cambodian military procedure.

Reports of Webb’s death were dispatched around the world, but three weeks later she emerged from a communist lair and telephoned UPI from Kampong Speu. She was alive and well and became the toast of an international press corps that had became badly fatigued by the high death rate and had already held her wake. They had an excuse for another drink at le Royale.

South Korean, Joseph Lee, survived a similar 14-day ordeal by pretending not to understand his captors. Assuming he could read Chinese, his Cambodian captors, including four women, handed him over to the North Vietnamese who became infuriated at his inability to comprehend. He was released and made it back to Phnom Penh with a swollen ankle where a cocktail party was held in his honour at the South Korean embassy.

As the Indochinese wars dragged on, support from the American public, Western and Asian allies waned. Military assistance was scaled back and victory for the Khmer Rouge seemed assured.

In the first weeks of April, 1975, correspondents were packing their bags. Neil Davis left for Saigon. He genuinely feared the Khmer Rouge, but felt comfortable with the North Vietnamese and was certain he could capture the end of the Vietnam War. He did. Davis’s film of communist tanks storming through the palace gates in the South Vietnamese capital was beamed into lounge rooms around the world symbolising an end to America’s Cold War foray into Indochina.

April 1975 – the Khmer Rouge take control

Not all left. Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times and photographers Roland Neveu and Al Rockoff were among those who remained behind as Pol Pot’s cadre swept through the capital. They spent two tenuous weeks holed up at the French Embassy before being escorted out of the country.

The rule of the Khmer Rouge government, known as Democratic Kampuchea, marked one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. Only a handful of western correspondents made it in and out safely.

Xinhua was allowed to operate but Chinese correspondents were confined to the embassy compound. The Vietnam News Agency (VNA) had hoped to staff a bureau, but this was eventually rejected by Democratic Kampuchea, despite Hanoi’s enormous effort in securing Pol Pot’s victory.

Post Khmer Rouge

That changed less than four years later when Vietnamese troops swept into Phnom Penh and ousted the Khmer Rouge. Civil war continued in the countryside and Cambodia remained largely off-limits to the western press.

As the Cold War ended, Vietnam’s occupation became untenable and its forces withdrew in 1989. Tom Hyland of the Australian Associated Press (AAP) remembers filing was a nightmare and the Vietnamese withdrawal was a less than glamorous affair with troops pulling out in broken down Saigon and Hanoi commuter buses, and shrapnel-scarred US-made Armoured Personnel Carriers that were captured in 1975.

About 400 reporters witnessed the scene as ceremonial guards goose-stepped outside the Royal Palace. The withdrawal signalled yet another era of low-level civil war that threatened Cambodia, even during the tenure of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which began in March 1992 and lasted until late 1993.

Cambodia was still in a state of semi-war with intermittent skirmishes between the Khmer Rouge and State of Cambodia forces, with the Khmer Rouge controlling large chunks of the north and west. Most of the remaining forces were divided between loyalty to the State of Cambodia government and the monarchy.

As the Vietnamese tanks rolled out, foreign correspondents again rolled in and most journalists hung out at the Gecko Bar on Street 110. Then in 1993, the first club for the western press was established by Briton Leo Dobbs of Reuters, American Stefan Ellis from AFP and Australian Mark Dodd of Reuters. It was named The Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia (FCCC) and Dobbs was its first president. It occupied a prime location on the corner of 178 Street and Sisowath Quay overlooking the Tonle Sap and Mekong River. Operations of the bar was contracted out.

The FCC proved a magnet for celebrities, academics, revolutionaries, poseurs and the odd unwanted mercenary. Peter Ustinov, Matt Dillon, Sam Waterson, Jane Goodall, East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao and Grateful Dead lyricist and internet guru John Perry Barlow all graced the club.

The foreign-owned press evolved with the influx of journalists and scores of newspapers hit the presses. Few survived. Those that did include the Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily. Chronicling Cambodia’s perils, each paper has proven an invaluable resource for correspondents.

American Nate Thayer scored one of journalism’s greatest scoops by interviewing and photographing Pol Pot in 1997. Denis Warner, one of the Three Musketeers from World War II, declared in a letter to the Far Eastern Economic Review that Thayer’s work was among the great scoops of the 20th century.

Pol Pot died on 15 April 1998, and a series of defections that followed led rapidly to the end of the civil war.

As the political landscape changed so did the relationship between the FCCC and Indochina Assets, the company contracted to run the bar. Tensions grew and the company that ran the bar astonished many by trademarking the name FCCC and bluntly telling the journalists to change their club’s name after registering not only the FCCC brand name but several other similar sounding names as well.

The FCCC, as operated by journalists, was briefly changed to the Foreign Journalists Club of Cambodia (FJCC) and then the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) in 2002, which has since been trademarked by the club at the Ministry of Commerce and endures to this day.

Honorary members include the former King Father Norodom Sihanouk, UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, former Minister of Information Ieng Mouly, and Australia’s Lieutenant-General John Sanderson (ret.), who commanded UNTAC forces in Cambodia. Among the correspondents and Photographers Al Rockoff, Tim Page and Jim Pringle also enjoy life membership as do all past presidents.

Cambodia and the OPCC in recent years

Cambodia has become one of the fastest developing economies in ASEAN with an unparalleled growth over the past 20 years. 

This economic boom, up until the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to new opportunities and challenges for the country, many of them covered by the local and international press. 

While often described in the early 2010s as a country with one of the most free presses in Southeast Asia, Cambodia lost many of its most critical, independent news outlets in 2017 and 2018, many of them hiring foreign journalists to work alongside Cambodian peers. That year and since, several outlets were taken off the broadcast airwaves , closed under heavy, disputed tax bills or went through meaningful changes of ownership, leading to their closure or to a fundamental reshaping of their editorial line. As the space for independent reporting shrunk, so did the number of foreign journalists posted in Cambodia.

In recent years, OPCC’s members have numbered around 30, with the club remaining an active space for professional networking, journalism mentorship, press freedom advocacy and news discussion and debate.