It’s been a tough morning for John Vink.
Work started at 2 a.m. with news of another land eviction. As the sun came up bulldozers began dismantling houses, residents began protesting, and the scene turned violent. In the melee demonstrators pelted the 61-year-old Belgian photographer with rocks, breaking his camera lens, and police forces blasted him with a fire hose.
But if the day has been tough for Vink, it’s been disastrous for the residents of Dey Krahom.
“It’s why we do this job,” Vink says. “Because sometimes maybe you make a difference. If we hadn’t had been there — the NGOs, the journalists, the photographers — it would have been much worse.”
As a founder and co-director of Ka-set — a Cambodia-based online newspaper published in French, Khmer, and English — Vink’s commitment to Khmer journalism goes beyond just being there. With public accounting and a rigid charter of ethics, Ka-set is trying to be something of a standard-bearer in Cambodian journalism.
Yet Ka-set’s commitment to ethical reporting has not liberated it from the financial realities that beset newspapers the world over, both online and off. Grants and private money that supported the group during the first year will not last forever. And for all the paper’s admirable idealism, good intentions will not pay the rent.
“We are coming to important crossroads regarding the long-term stability of the Web site,” Vink says.
Ka-set, the Khmer word for “newspaper,” was founded in November 2007 by Magnum photographer John Vink and three former Cambodge Soir journalists — Duong Sokha, Stéphanie Gée and Laurent Le Gouanvic.
In June 2007 a story in The Soir about environmental watchdog Global Witness sparked a battled in the newsroom over editorial direction. The fight ended with the The Soir shuttered, leaving several local and foreign journalists out of work.
In the aftermath, Duong, Gée and Le Gouanvic were all left with the same question: what next?
“We thought first of doing a magazine,” Vink recalls. “A very quick calculation showed us that we didn’t have the money for that. But instead, we could start a Web site, which could be updated daily … that’s something we could envision.”
By November the Ka-set team had an office. Vink and the others were flush with enthusiasm in the new venture. Volunteers in London and Paris began building the Web site, Gée assigned stories and writers jumped back into the life they had been missing since work with The Soir ended.
In January 2008 Ka-set published its first edition online in French and Khmer.
Setting the Example
With promises of independent and ethical journalism, readership grew quickly.
“Ka-set is a news website about Cambodia and Cambodians in the world,” the Web site says. “Its goal is to promote quality journalism, within respect of the rules of ethics and deontology. The team work professionally and independently from any pressure groups, whether they be political or economical.”
In the foreign-language press such standards are given, says Vink, but lesser so in the Khmer media, where newspapers, radio and television stations are often tied to political parties.
Every Ka-set journalist is a signatory to the Ka-set Charter — based largely on the 1971 “Munich Charter” — that defines a strict code of professional ethics.
“We thought that it would be important, especially for the Khmer readers, to guarantee them that we are really independent,” Vink says. “Each member of our small community is a signatory of a charter which stipulates what the journalist can and cannot do. He has to sign it, otherwise he cannot be a member of Ka-Set.”
Ka-set’s promise has not gone unnoticed.
In July 2008 Duong Sokha and fellow journalist Chheang Bopha — a previous Soir staffer also — were awarded the prestigious Hellman-Hammett prize given by Human Rights Watch for “courage in the face of political persecution.”
From the beginning Ka-set’s finances have been modest. Until now the paper has gotten by on grants, private funding, and a trickle of advertising dollars. Local journalists and translators receive salaries, but foreign staff worked until recently without pay.
Six weeks ago Ka-Set launched an English version aimed directly at Cambodian expatriates in the United States. Nearly 250,000 Khmers live in the U.S., and the English edition effectively doubles Ka-set’s current market. With the new audience well in its sights Ka-set plans to redouble its efforts at tapping advertisers, something the paper has yet to fully exploit.
The coming months will be critical, Vink says. But with a boost in revenue Ka-set plans to hire more editors and continue building the online newspaper the group envisioned 12 months ago.
“And give everyone a raise,” Vink says.