The Khmer Times has long been supine. Photo: AFP / Manan Vatsayana

If you have a half-witted thought that conforms with the views of the Cambodian government, the first person to contact is T Mohan, not only the publisher of the Khmer Times newspaper but also, I hear, its de facto opinion editor.

And if you want to write your doggerel, you don’t even need to face the embarrassment of putting your name to it. Mohan, who for years has (“allegedly”) written articles under several assumed names, is more than happy to publish your work under pseudonyms. 

That’s the reason readers of the Khmer Times – including those who forked out 4,000 riel (US$1) for a print copy, more than the price of a far less brain-numbing mug of Anchor beer – would have been able to read on December 4 an article by “Thomas Fowler.”

Let’s ignore the fact that “Thomas Fowler” probably isn’t real (and that the conjuring up of this pseudonym was as equally unimaginative as “his” argument) and even “his” stated accolade: “Thomas Fowler is an ardent Cambodia watcher.”

The article isn’t even an argument, just a list (almost unreadable) of observations that do nothing to prove its thesis, that the European Union was hypocritical when sanctioning Cambodia trade this year. Some of the ruling party’s better-educated claquers have already exhausted this argument. 

And readers would have been able to glance at an editorial of December 7 that launched a scathing and rabid attack on the now-banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and its leaders’ assertions they will return from exile in January.

I also hear that Mohan is back writing the editorials (though cannot confirm it), even after he was forced to stop writing them in 2016 after an internal review at the newspaper found there to be “sufficient evidence” that he was copy-and-pasting into his editorials.

Since this was an “editorial,” not an “opinion,” it is also a stain on the entire Khmer Times staff, including the several fine journalists and editors who are able to crowbar as much objectivity in an article as they are allowed (or as much as gets through the checkers).

And if Mohan didn’t write it (it wasn’t published elsewhere beforehand, a prerequisite for a plagiarizer), it raises even more questions about who’s setting the newspaper’s editorial line. 

I have previously written that the Khmer Times conforms to the old Fleet Street adage of journalism: Either at your throat or at your feet. Indeed, it has long been supine, snuggling up at the legs of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and, if rumor speaks truth, feeding off the financial crumbs the party throws on the floor. 

In 2017, leaked recordings suggested that it was receiving money from NagaCorp, a casino operation in Phnom Penh, and possibly from Hun Manith, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s second son. The conduit, I reported in May, could be the  businessman Wong Tow Fock, who is listed as a director of Khmer Times’ parent company Virtus Media Pte. (Read my earlier report for his connections with NagaCorp.)

With this aforementioned editorial, the “KT” reckons it is the ruling party’s attack dog, too. But it lacks the teeth and intelligence for this task; the editorial flings cheap and easy attacks that lack any real bite.

Instead of wit, it depends on innuendo and personal vilification. It refers to CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua as a “jaded horse,” for instance. (Hardly a gallant way of referring to a lady, eh Mohan, Mr Wandering Hands?)

But the worst thing is its attempts to wriggle free – indeed, it lacks the one thing that an attack dog needs: courage to own its own words. The claims it makes it ascribes to unnamed patrons of an unnamed café (who are probably manufactured). Take one example: 

“One senior patron at a café said half in jest that whether it is Sochua, Rainsy or any of the lying cowards who dare set foot in the Kingdom, they should just be sent to the stockade to serve their 14 days quarantine to make sure they are free from Covid-19, and then another 3 years to rid them of their compulsive lying personality disorder. Cowardice is incurable, he added to laughter all around.”

Cowardice, indeed, is incurable, but the irony is coagulated coming from a newspaper that has given up whatever attachment it had for truth and moral conviction, that brazenly publishes opinions and articles without bylines, and now appears content to roll around in the bile it heaps up. The really sad thing is that the Khmer Times seems happy with its place. 

There’s a difference between the “gutter press” and the “sewer press.” The gutter press drops down in the muck self-consciously and unwillingly, eager to get away from the subterranean as quickly as possible. The sewer press, though, is happy to wallow in the filth, never aspiring to anything better. 

Neither does the Khmer Times seemingly aspire to anything better with its opinion articles. The weeks between November 1 and December 7 one might have assumed to be a bumper period for the opinion section considering the important goings-on in Cambodia. Instead, what we find is that 61 of the 70 articles assigned as “opinion” are from international publications (DW, the China Daily and Global Times, mainly) and not about Cambodia.

Of the remaining nine, four are from varying individuals, some ambassadors in Cambodia and some overseas students. Meanwhile, two are from Ek Tha, an adviser to the Ministry of Information, standing vice-chairman of the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit, and spokesman of the Council of Ministers. And three are from Suen Sam, researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, one of which is sensible.

I guess it must be hard when no serious thinkers want to publish their thoughts in the KT and, I hear, serious academics have rejected offers from the newspaper to be paid for their opinion writing. (Note, most other publications where they do publish don’t pay.)

Alas, Mohan knows his place not as a muckraker but a muckspreader, lavished with funds from his political donors to publish the sort of doggerel that robs readers of their wit – and their riel. 

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.