Story Publication logo December 8, 2017

When the Presses Stop



Earlier this year, pressure from Cambodia's government forced the Cambodia Daily to close its...


Updated and corrected on December 16, 2017, and January 19, 2024

Bernie Krisher helped bring free journalism to Cambodia. Now, as the country reverts to autocracy, his paper has been shut down. Will he survive the heartbreak? Will Cambodia?

The man on the bed in the Tokyo apartment was weak. As he beckoned to his daughter, Debbie, his arm shook. “Put me
in the wheelchair,” he said in a hoarse whisper.

When I first met Bernie Krisher, in 2001, he was spry and wiry, with apparently infinite energy. He seemed to hardly sleep, preferring to spend every moment badgering someone for something. His had been a lifetime of willfulness. As a child, he escaped the Holocaust. As a reporter in Asia, he interviewed President Sukarno of Indonesia and the Japanese emperor Hirohito, then launched a tabloid that revolutionized Japanese media.

In “retirement,” he became a humanitarian, flouting international sanctions to bring rice to North Korea and pouring vast sums into war-ravaged Cambodia. There he built hundreds of schools, founded an orphanage and a hospital, and started The Cambodia Daily, where I worked from 2001 to 2003. He was constantly thinking of ways to better the country—persuading J. K. Rowling to let him translate Harry Potter into Khmer (and sell copies for 50 cents), say, or helping the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof buy brothel workers out of servitude.

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But when I visited Krisher in Tokyo this fall, I found him much reduced: At age 86, he was ill and running a fever. He could scarcely see or hear, and his comprehension was foggy.

The last time I had been in contact with Krisher, I was the sick one. About a year after I’d gone to work for The Daily, I began to suffer from a mysterious illness. On my 24th birthday it was diagnosed as cancer, but the flimsy insurance Krisher granted his expat staffers would not, based on a technicality, cover treatment. I asked Krisher—who managed the paper from Tokyo, visiting semiannually—whether he could help somehow. He eventually contacted the insurance company; by then, though, I had begun chemotherapy, and my doctor and family had persuaded the insurance company to cover most of my expenses.

But I had not come to Tokyo to confront Krisher over that long-ago incident. I had come because his legacy was in crisis, as were Cambodia’s hopes for democracy.

The paper aimed to embody objective journalism, and to train a generation of journalists.

The government had forced a shutdown of The Daily, which, despite its tiny circulation of about 5,000, had been the paper of record for Cambodia’s civil society: Its courageous reporters had regularly broken news that the rest of the country’s media then followed. The closure was part of a broad crackdown on Cambodia’s independent press and institutions—one that would in short order see the opposition leader jailed and multiple watchdog groups shuttered. The bank accounts of Krisher’s charities had been frozen, and Debbie and her husband, who ran the charities day to day, had been threatened with arrest.

Krisher wanted to tackle the problem the way he had always tackled problems—by storming in and demanding to be heard. He had planned to fly to Cambodia the day I visited, but his doctors had talked him out of the trip. If the flight didn’t finish him off, they worried, the Cambodians might: His name was posted in every passport-control kiosk at the Phnom Penh airport.

To appease her father, Debbie had tried distracting him: The paper wasn’t ending, she said, just being reincarnated.

“What are we doing with The Cambodia Daily?” she yelled into his ear. “Opa, what are we going to do?”

“We’re taking it offshore,” he said.

Krisher was born in Frankfurt in 1931 to Polish Jewish parents. In 1937, the family fled Germany, eventually settling in Queens. After college and the Army, Krisher spent a year in Tokyo on a Ford Foundation grant. He fell in love with his interpreter and brought her back to New York, where they married. In 1962, the couple returned to Japan, and he got a job at Newsweek.

Krisher, who worked his way up to bureau chief, specialized in writing Q&As; he was legendary for who he knew. Once, in a Tokyo bookstore, he buttonholed Sukarno, who called Krisher “crazy”—and invited him to Jakarta. In turn, Sukarno introduced him to the Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk, a former king who, following Cambodia’s independence from French rule in 1953, had refashioned himself as prime minister, albeit an autocratic one. Krisher also boasted of his 1975 interview of Emperor Hirohito, telling an interviewer in 1989 that it was his “greatest, most difficult feat and probably the thing that I treasure most.”

Krisher was also famous for his difficult personality. Imperious and bullying, he berated staffers for failing at tasks he’d never assigned them. (Krisher’s children Deborah and Joseph denied this, as did two female staffers who worked at Newsweek at the time.) Eventually, he was fired, which Krisher attributed to a “falling out” with an editor.

Not long afterward, Krisher became the chief editorial adviser of a new magazine, a gossipy weekly called Focus. Modeled on People, it made its name off tawdry scoops, such as a photo of a politician urinating on a ginkgo tree, and another photo that Krisher described as “Mia Farrow getting out of a car and her legs were spread apart and she wasn’t wearing panties.” (Actually, it was Farrah Fawcett.) Focus, which is now defunct, sold millions of copies and (together with a Newsweek termination settlement) helped make Krisher rich. Despite the magazine’s profitability, when I spoke with Krisher in Tokyo, he expressed regret. “It was pornography,” he told me.

In the early 1990s, his old friend Sihanouk, the deposed Cambodian leader, called to ask a favor. The country had recently emerged from decades of civil war, and its people were preparing for their first real election. Sihanouk asked Krisher whether he would be willing to help rehabilitate Cambodia.

Krisher, naturally, said yes.

Sihanouk’s years out of power had marked a bloody period for Cambodia. The Communist Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and orchestrated a genocide that killed as many as 3 million Cambodians. In 1979, the regime was driven out by the Vietnamese, who occupied the country for a decade while the Khmer Rouge waged resistance from the countryside. The Vietnamese tapped as their prime minister a former Khmer Rouge commander named Hun Sen.

In 1989, the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia, and in 1991, the warring parties signed peace accords. In turn, the United Nations embarked on an unprecedented effort to build a democracy from scratch. As soldiers, police, and aid workers flooded in, UN administrators helped the Cambodians write a constitution, which declared its commitment to “principles of liberal democracy and pluralism,” including due process, property rights, and freedom of expression.

And so, in 1993, Krisher started his English-and-Khmer-language newspaper out of an old hotel on the Mekong riverfront. He drafted a few Americans to run it, and they recruited Cambodian staffers who had worked as fixers or translators. In a country where the local press was mostly corrupt or partisan, the paper, whose motto was “All the news without fear or favor,” aimed to embody objective journalism, and to train a generation of journalists.

Although 90 percent of eligible voters participated in the UN-administered 1993 elections, Cambodian democracy got off to a rocky start. The royalists, led by Sihanouk’s son Prince Norodom Ranariddh, got the most votes, but Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, which came in second, refused to accept the result. After a standoff, Ranariddh and Hun Sen were made co–prime ministers. A bloodless coup had taken place, and the international community, wary of a return to civil war, had looked away.

The country’s needs seemed infinite. Krisher pumped his connections for money and started project after project, from the orphanage and the schools to an initiative that paid families to educate their daughters. He was not fussy about his donors. One school was funded by—and named for—the brother of Henry Kissinger, who, as Nixon’s secretary of state, had directed a bombing campaign that killed thousands of Cambodians. To build his hospital, Krisher partnered with a Japanese religious leader whose sect has been called a cult.

The UN stayed in Cambodia for just 18 months, after which the constitution was only lightly observed. In 1997, violent clashes pushed out Hun Sen’s rivals, allowing him to take sole control, which he has never relinquished. Today he is one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.

But even as Hun Sen consolidated power, his country’s dependence on foreign aid required him to pay lip service to constitutional ideals. At meetings, he would hold up The Daily as proof of press freedom. There were hiccups: Once, during a Mekong River booze cruise, the information minister told me he was revoking the paper’s license over a translation error. But Krisher used his connections to smooth things over, as he always did. Later that year, The Daily landed a rare interview with Hun Sen.

The Daily was not progovernment, but neither was it antigovernment. Our job wasn’t to take down Hun Sen; it was to accurately report what was happening. Covering the country’s first local elections, in 2002, I found that many Cambodians viewed the opposition, led by a French-educated former banker, as out of touch. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party won by a wide margin, in an election that observers hailed as a positive step for democracy.

As for the paper’s mission of training journalists, it succeeded beyond Krisher’s hopes: The Daily’s Cambodian alumni staffed bureaus in Phnom Penh and abroad, wrote books, and directed documentaries. Over the years, as young expats came and went, the Cambodians, more so than the foreigners, were the ones training their colleagues. The Daily’s American alumni now work at publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and one has won a Pulitzer.

However high-quality its journalism, The Daily’s offices were run-down to the point of crumbling, with donated Apple IIs and salvaged furniture. In 2001, staff barely got word of the 9/11 attacks, because the cable bill hadn’t been paid. As Ryun Patterson, the night editor, scrambled to update the paper, Krisher called from Washington, D.C., where he could see smoke billowing from the Pentagon. That wasn’t why he was calling. He wanted to check the wording of a brief item about a staffer’s defamation lawsuit.

Cambodia’s leader now quotes, approvingly, Donald Trump’s attacks on the press.

The staffer, Kay Kimsong, had pioneered The Daily’s business coverage. When the foreign minister accused him of defamation for truthful reporting, Kimsong stood little chance in the corrupt courts. According to Kimsong, Krisher suggested Kimsong spend three days in jail and promised he would ask the King (whose father Krisher knew) to pardon and release Kimsong.

As for me, in 2003 I went to the U.S. for chemotherapy, which was successful. Four months later, I wanted to say goodbye to Cambodia. I asked Krisher whether I could return to The Daily for a final month’s work, but he said no. I returned anyway, and worked for free.

As Krisher’s health has declined, Debbie and her husband, Douglas Steele, have taken over many of his affairs. In 2014, Douglas moved from Tokyo to Phnom Penh to run The Daily, arriving as Cambodia’s political winds were changing. Sam Rainsy, an exiled opposition leader, had been allowed back just before the 2013 elections, in what Hun Sen intended as a prodemocracy gesture. The regime was blindsided by what happened next. Tens of thousands of Cambodians showed up to Rainsy’s speeches. The previously fractured opposition, which had recently united under one banner, won 45 percent of the vote to the ruling party’s 49 percent, despite widespread reports of irregularities and voter suppression.

Claiming victory, the opposition launched a wave of largely nonviolent protests that continued until January 2014, when a few rogue protesters clashed with police and four were shot dead. The next day, the Interior Ministry banned political gatherings of more than 10 people, and the cowed opposition agreed to accept 55 seats in parliament to the ruling party’s 68 seats.

For the next national election, in 2018, Hun Sen is not taking any chances. In August, the Krishers received a letter claiming that The Daily was not properly registered (it operated under a decades-old license) and that it owed 25 billion riel—about $6.3 million—in taxes. Soon after, Hun Sen, in a speech, decried the paper as a “thief.” (He has taken to quoting, approvingly, Donald Trump’s attacks on the press. Once a beacon of freedom to the world, America now offers inspiration to dictators.) The Daily’s advertisers withdrew, leaving it unable to operate. It announced that it would close its doors on September 4.

The Daily was not the only organization targeted. Radio stations broadcasting Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, U.S.-backed services that provide independent news to many rural Cambodians, were shuttered, as was the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute.

Once, Hun Sen might have hesitated to so flagrantly defy the foreign-aid community. But Cambodia is less dependent on the West than it once was. China now provides the country with nearly four times as much direct aid as the U.S. does and is a major source of private investment. Phnom Penh, formerly a sleepy backwater, is today dotted with skyscrapers-in-progress, their scaffolding hung with Chinese signs.

On September 3, The Daily prepared to publish a commemorative final issue, filled with reflections and analyses. But before dawn, news broke that Kem Sokha, the leader of the opposition party, had been accused of treason and jailed. As Daily reporters rushed to the scene, staffers who had planned to spend a leisurely, mournful day in the newsroom found themselves expanding the edition. The news pushed The Daily’s closure off the top of the front page. The final issue instead featured Sokha in handcuffs, with the headline “ ‘Descent Into Outright Dictatorship.’ ”

Things have only deteriorated since. In October, Hun Sen threatened opposition figures with arrest, and many lawmakers fled the country. The government has also moved to dissolve the opposition, forcing its candidates off the ballot. “The 25-year international effort to create a multiparty, rule-of-law-respecting, due-process-respecting regime in Cambodia has now died,” John Sifton, Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director, told me. “We have reached the end of the line. Democracy is dead in Cambodia.”

Debbie and Douglas say they still plan to turn The Daily into an online-only news service, with information from byline-less Cambodians fed to a news desk in Bangkok. But their bare-bones website is blocked in-country, and the project has hit various snags.

As for the Cambodians who worked for The Daily, sometimes at great personal risk, many are in difficult straits. Some have found work as stringers or fixers, but they are on a government blacklist that prevents them from covering official events. When I visited Cambodia in October, right after seeing Krisher, I traveled to Phnom Penh’s outskirts to see a couple of old colleagues—Saing Soenthrith, who was orphaned by the genocide, and Van Roeun, an environmental journalist who broke important stories on the country’s illegal deforestation. Roeun’s foyer was filled with cages—he was raising fighting cocks to earn money for his children’s school fees. Soenthrith, for his part, was dying of kidney disease.

Their plight struck me as a metaphor for the West’s involvement in Cambodia: For all the good intentions, the gifts from abroad were only temporary. The structures that foreigners tried to build weren’t sustainable—Cambodia’s entrenched power was too ruthless, its inertial force too strong. The Daily couldn’t survive without Krisher’s force of will; democracy couldn’t survive once the international community moved on.

I thought back to that day in Tokyo, when I asked Krisher if democracy succeeded in Cambodia. Debbie yelled the question into his ear. He could hardly see me and didn’t remember who I was, but he glared in my direction. “It’s now a democracy,” he replied, haltingly.

“But they closed our paper down,” Debbie shouted. “Is that a democracy?”

Krisher was silent. “Opa?” she yelled.

“Put me in the wheelchair,” he muttered again.

This article originally stated that Bernie Krisher failed to assist the author with a health-insurance problem in 2003, when he was her employer. The article noted that Krisher denied this, saying he had appealed to the insurance company without success. After the article went to press, Krisher located emails from that time showing that he had attempted to help the author, but that the problem had by that time been resolved. The article also stated that Sihanouk asked Krisher to give Cambodia a newspaper; in fact, he asked Krisher to help rehabilitate the country. Lastly, the article said that two alumni of The Cambodia Daily won Pulitzer Prizes. Only one did. We regret the errors. On January 19, 2024, as a result of a lawsuit filed by Krisher’s children in Japan, the article was further updated to remove certain private details regarding Krisher’s and his wife’s health; to remove characterizations of the insurance offered by The Cambodia Daily and of Q&As Krisher conducted; to clarify the context of Krisher’s interview of Emperor Hirohito; to remove an allegation made by a former colleague of Krisher’s, add denials by Krisher’s children and two former colleagues, and add detail about Krisher’s firing; to clarify that Krisher was the chief editorial adviser, not founder, of FOCUS, and had previously misidentified the person featured in a photograph; to clarify that the non-payment of The Cambodia Daily’s cable bill was not Krisher’s responsibility; to clarify that Kay Kimsong’s experience facing defamation charges; and to clarify a question asked by the author.

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