In Cambodia, becoming the story

Joel Brinkley, for the Pulitzer Center
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia is a complex place; the boundaries between what the government considers fair reporting and libelous commentary are not always distinct. So it was that I wrote my first column from here, published in about 20 newspapers in the United States last week and even more Cambodian blogs and Websites.

Well, the Cambodian government noticed it for the first time on Friday, Aug. 22, and I got a nasty email from a government official I had interviewed. (Several diplomats sent congratulations.) Then on Sunday, Khieu Kanharith, the Minister of Information, held a televised press conference to denounce me as "an irresponsible journalist" who had "destroyed his Pulitzer Prize" by writing about him and corruption in this country. Reporters called me all day long, and today's newspaper have full accounts of the incident. Today (Monday) reporters are calling to ask for interviews.

So here's what really going on. Cambodia's press is more or less free to write about corruption – as long as reporters don't name names. I didn't follow that rule. So, as occurs in many countries, the media is hoping I will say things in interviews that they do not feel free to say themselves. That would enable to publish "prohibited" material with the excuse that they were simply quoting someone else.

I turned down all those requests. I told the reporters that I would prefer to make whatever statements I want to make in what I write. They seemed to understand. When this week's column runs, I will be in Laos. If Khieu holds a press conference, this time I may not even hear about it.