Postcard From J-School In Cambodia

NPR's David Kestenbaum returned recently from several months teaching journalism in Cambodia. The country is undergoing rapid change but it is still unclear and somewhat ambivalent about the concept of a free press.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a few seconds of panic on the football field. But first, young people in Cambodia are growing up in a country that is changing fast. The Khmer Rouge is gone, and society is reshaping itself. There are elections, traffic lights in the capital, newspapers for sale - though only the traffic lights really work right. NPR's David Kestenbaum spent a semester teaching radio journalism in Cambodia. He found the country is still a little uncomfortable with the idea of a free press.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The good news is Cambodia now has a place where students can study journalism: the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The dorms are filled with squatters, the Olympic pool is empty and crumbling, but my classroom was air-conditioned and filled with students who greet you with wide smiles.

Unidentified Man: Good morning. Good morning, everyone. Good morning!

KESTENBAUM: OK. I think the recorder's working. On the first day, I asked everyone why they wanted to be journalists. And a lot of them said they weren't so sure they did. Sambat(ph) said his friends thought he was nuts.

SAMBAT (Journalism Student, Royal University of Phnom Penh): When I go to meet my high school friend, he said, what? Study journalism - are you crazy? It's not a good profession.

KESTENBAUM: As one student explained over lunch, journalism was dangerous, didn't pay well, nobody respected you, and it didn't seem to have much effect. Problems pointed out in news stories usually didn't get fixed. All good points. Still, most students were hungry for news. One always showed up for class with a radio, listening to whatever he could get.

MONIE(ph) (Journalism Student, Royal University of Phnom Penh): Journalists are very important.

KESTENBAUM: Do you really think that? Or are you just repeating things that we've told you?

MONIE: No, it's not a repeat.

KESTENBAUM: That's Monie, who told me that a news story about his village prompted the government to build a new irrigation system. I admired these kids. One weekend, Seiha(ph) went charging up a mountain because he'd heard villagers were finding gemstones. He wanted to be the first to report it. Seiha text messaged me on my cell phone. David, I'm on a mountain, but I do not have any food. Maybe someone will share their lunch, I messaged him back. But Seiha had been told that journalists did not take bribes. It's OK, he messaged. A journalist should be able to survive without food and water for two days.

What is the role of a journalist?

SEIHA (Journalism Student, Royal University of Phnom Penh): Any society without journalism, it's like the Earth without sun. It's bad.

KESTENBAUM: Society without journalism is like the Earth without sun. Thank you, Seiha. The students learned to use microphones to ask challenging questions. It was hard work. Government officials rarely agreed to be interviewed. But after a semester, the students had put together three half-hour news programs. The plan was to actually air them on a local radio station. Stories about gangs, prostitution, a land dispute, about how college graduates were having trouble finding jobs. The name of the show, "News Bell." Yes, Soshihata(ph), tells me, "Bell."

How do you say it in Khmer?

SOSHIHATA (Journalism Student, Royal University of Phnom Penh): (Khmer spoken)

KESTENBAUM: Sorata(ph) said, like the bell the ice cream man rings.

SORATA (Journalism Student, Royal University of Phnom Penh): Ting, ting, ting, ting. Pip, pip, pip, poo.

KESTENBAUM: The students were excited for the stories to air. None more than Seiha who, by the way, survived his mountain trek.

SEIHA: When my story will broadcast, I will tell to my friend to listen. It is my story. It is from my department.

KESTENBAUM: But his story did not air. None of the stories did. Officials at the university decided some were too sensitive. The prostitute story took place too close to the prime minister's house. The unemployment story, too negative. Someone in government might get mad. Months of negotiations and arm-twisting ensued. The U.S. ambassador even got involved and mentioned the incident in a speech. Then, last month, after some adjustments, "News Bell" finally played in Cambodia.

(Soundbite of "News Bell" broadcast)

Unidentified Announcer: (Khmer spoken)

KESTENBAUM: The stories were no longer breaking news. But given the lack of news here, it felt important. It was not the Earth without sun. There was a little light.

Oh, wait. If I want to sign off in Khmer, I say...

Unidentified Student: (Khmer spoken)

KESTENBAUM: (Khmer spoken)

Unidentified Student: Yes.

KESTENBAUM: OK.

SIMON: Well said. NPR's David Kestenbaum. He was in Cambodia as a Fulbright scholar.

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