What Was the Editorial Line of the First Major Khmer Newspaper in 1936?

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PHNOM PENH--The first printed newspaper appeared during the 1600s in Europe. Meanwhile in Cambodia, the first newspaper in Khmer language covering politics and sensitive issues was launched in December 1936 under the name of “Nagara Vatta,” preparing the ground for independent media coverage as is known today.  

It would be followed in 1946 by the newspaper “Kampuchea” that would make its way into the world of print press.

Sorn Samnang, a professor of Cambodian history, explained that the weekly newspaper Nagara Vatta was launched in Phnom Penh in late 1936. Pach Chhoeun, its publisher, believed in democracy for Cambodia, he said. While Cambodian archives state that this newspaper was launched in December 1936, records vary as to the exact date with some listing Dec. 19 and others Dec. 26 as the date of the first issue.  

Pach Chhoeun was a former translator for the French administration during the First World War (1914-1918) in which Cambodian soldiers took part in Europe. During his mission in France, Chhoeun had learnt a great deal about the ideology of democracy. Plus, he was a person who strongly opposed French colonialism. The Buddhist monk Hem Cheav, an intellectual of the same era, also helped establish the Nagara Vatta newspaper.  

As Sorn Samnang pointed out, Cambodian journalists and writers at the time usually signed their articles with pennames such as Bishop Kang or Bishop Koy. Also, Samnang said, they would often state questions such as “why are Cambodians poor” or “are Cambodians poor because they are lazy” and then address these issues in their articles. Many of the articles were written to inspire Cambodians not to rely too much on others. The newspaper was read by government officials while ordinary Cambodians usually had the paper read by Buddhist monks at pagodas, Samnang explained.

Generally, the Nagara Vatta was viewed as taking a stance against French control in the country. However, based on the research conducted by Heng Oudom, who has obtained a journalism master’s degree in France, Nagara Vatta’s stance was much more flexible and open than this as was usually the case among Cambodians at the time. The political stance of this newspaper was initially to remind Cambodians to work and trade harder to avoid being underestimated by Chinese and Vietnamese businessmen who, after the French, were the ones controlling businesses and the domestic economy.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the Nagara Vatta newspaper was having the opportunity to influence for changes onto the political landscape by directly criticizing the French. This was possible since the newspaper was, during that period, backed by the Japanese.

The Nagara Vatta newspaper was mainly created and written by Cambodian intellectuals and nationalists such as Pach Chhoeun, Sim Var, Son Ngoc Thanh as well as many writers who were government officials, law experts, teachers or former monks who did not write under their own names.  

Contents in the Nagara Vatta newspaper were mainly opinion pieces, which means they did not write interview articles. These contemporary writers usually called themselves “opinionists” rather than “journalists.” Many of these writers were very nationalist.

Prior to the Nagara Vatta, there had been the Khmer-language magazines “Kampu Sorya” (the Sun of Cambodia) in 1926 and the Srok Khmer launched a few months afterwards, but both publications did not cover political issues as the Nagara Vatta did. There also had been some French-language publications in Cambodia such as L’Avenir du Cambodge (the future of Cambodia) and L’Echo du Cambodge (news about Cambodia).

The newspaper Kampuchea would be launched 10 years after the Nagara Vatta in 1946, once the war was over and France was attempting to rebuild Indochina.

But that would be another era.

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