Opinion: Women’s Challenges in Newsrooms Are Going Unreported

Cambodian journalists cover in an event in Phnom Penh. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)
Cambodian journalists cover in an event in Phnom Penh. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)
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The two reporters behind this opinion piece have both worked in multiple news outlets in Phnom Penh, and in recognition of International Women’s Day, we gathered our own experiences, and the perspectives of several other women and men in newsrooms, to open a discussion about equity in journalism.

Note: We use the first-person singular below to talk about what one of the two of us directly experienced.

I was one of the few female founding members of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance, a new independent journalists union. As such I’ve been asked to talk about my experiences as a female journalist and inspire younger Cambodian women. As a labor organizer-turned-senior journalist, I was told I could share my general experiences in journalism, but I was told I couldn’t criticize the organization that I had helped start.

Is that not the point of journalism: to point out problems with an organization to see it improve? Especially when this organization has seen three of five founding female members walk away from the board in its two years of existence.

I wrote back to the organizers: “If the problem has not been discussed seriously and has not been solved and everyone is ignoring it, how do you expect to solve the problem and motivate [women] to participate?”

We, the authors of this piece, who are frequent VOD contributors, found ourselves talking about harassment and unfairness that we’d heard about from female colleagues, or faced on our own, during our tuk-tuk rides out to report “women’s issues” stories about garment workers and commercial surrogacy. Whether the conflicts are small newsroom culture issues or punishable by law, it helps no one if these complaints never go beyond tuk-tuk chats, so we asked other colleagues in our field about their own experiences.

Pa Sokheng has taken multiple part-time journalism jobs while she’s completing a communication degree at Pannasastra University, and she entered male-dominated newsrooms at each workplace. Most of the time, she says her former coworkers were kind and accommodating, but she often noticed their voices.

It started with sources: Sokheng says she frequently had to call government officials while working at VAYO FM radio, and while sometimes they were polite, some spoke to her with a “strong” voice and questioned where she worked after she had already told them.

But she sometimes took note of her male colleagues’ booming voices too when she would trip over her words while reading out the daily broadcast.

“Sometimes I think with men, it’s their nature, but sometimes I think they can control it,” Sokheng reflects on their voices. “Sometimes if they use the negative words on us [women], it affects our feelings. … Their voice makes us feel like we are weak, we are bad, we did something that wasn’t good.”

When I first started interning at the Cambodia Daily newsroom more than four years ago, I, the other writer on this post, felt lucky to walk into a surprisingly balanced newsroom, in terms of men and women. But I quickly realized that it’s not enough just to have a newsroom population that matches the global male-female ratio. I would get close to one editor, only to realize later that they belittled another female coworker, far beyond a standard “critique” of their work.

Colleagues would go out to drink alcohol in small groups, and though I do enjoy going out, I often felt uncomfortable drinking with them, especially as a newly arrived 22-year-old. Feeling outside the close-knit groups, I flirted with one colleague at a social event, and though I eventually became uncomfortable and asked him to stop, he pursued for some time. Even though I come from a country where the conversation around women’s rights and consent is generally more progressive, and I wouldn’t blame another person for withdrawing consent, inside I still felt I brought problems upon myself by responding in the first place.

I only realized that my experiences were common as I stayed in Phnom Penh longer and met other female journalists. And I also saw that as a white American journalist I had privilege over my Cambodian peers, who seemed to bear more pressures and harassment from those inside and outside the newsroom.

Sometimes I think with men, it’s their nature, but sometimes I think they can control it.

At the start of her seven-year career in journalism, Than Raksmey said that she felt a lot of pressure from her family, a common experience among female reporters. She says they used to cry and stay up through the night worrying about her past jobs at VAYO FM and then Thmey Thmey.

“I worked as a journalist for one year before I told my parents,” she says. “They didn’t support it at all. They didn’t approve that I worked on sensitive issues.”

Now a broadcast reporter at government-aligned news outlet Fresh News, Raksmey says her parents feel better as it’s a safer career choice. She adds that she feels accepted by the all-male editorial board and that they treat her well, though when she meets fellow female reporters, they tell her about problems they face in their jobs.

Another female journalist said she sometimes finds expressing her concerns with an all-male editor staff to be challenging, including explaining that she feels weak because of her period.

“During the morning meetings where we pitch stories, when a colleague pitched stories about rape cases some co-workers responded in impolite words or words that weren’t good to hear,” she said. “Whether their responses had good or bad intentions, I don’t think they shouldn’t have said to victimize the victim and also I was there listening too.”

As a fellow Cambodian reporter, I (the co-author on this piece) built my career as a journalist at the Phnom Penh Post until shortly after it was resold in 2018. Even before it changed management, it was still managed by a man, and he did not take any action after a male colleague harassed female coworkers. Once, a male colleague tried to lay his head on my breast, so I screamed at him: “I will punch you in the face and put you in jail!”

The editor-in-chief at the time came out after he heard the noise, and I told him what happened and that I didn’t feel comfortable working in that environment. The boss just walked away without questions. I later found out that the same colleague had harassed female interns, and one intern reported him again after he kissed her on the head, but he continues to be protected in the shadows, without any warnings or punishments.

An Khema joined the Cambodian Center for Independent Media’s training program with hopes of entering the journalism industry, but when she was selected to work alongside a professional journalist on a story he reported in Koh Kong, she found herself pressured by the mentor to drink alcohol on the job.

Rather than support her choice not to drink, the mentor criticized her, Khema recalls.

“If you want to have a good job you must learn to drink!” the mentor told her, the young woman wrote in a blog post. She added: “If you don’t drink, it means you do not respect me!”

Some of the leaders of the training program created more formal rules for mentorships, which pays participating journalists. But the woman says she was disappointed that a program leader did not take her concerns seriously.

“When [newsrooms claim] they need women to work with, but they don’t respect women, what do they really mean?” she said.

When a colleague pitched stories about rape cases some co-workers responded in impolite words or words that weren’t good to hear.”

It’s not only young Cambodian journalists who feel unheard.

April Reposar, a Filipina journalist who lived in Cambodia in 2019, left her socialite reporting job at the end of that year, initially saying she left for personal reasons. When she returned to the Philippines, she publicly announced that she had been sexually harassed by publisher T. Mohan and filed a lawsuit in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and the case is still being considered by the investigating judge, she says. Mohan has denied the accusations.

She refused his propositions at the time — and screenshot the WhatsApp messages to back up her case — but she said she never felt comfortable to report the case while living in Phnom Penh, or even tell her family or most coworkers about the situation.

“It’s like I’m being strangled for not having a voice in a place where I know no one can help me,” she says, recalling the time she spent in the Khmer Times’ newsroom. “Some gave support, but they never gave me a hand. We have to admit that some countries never take sexual harassment seriously because if it’s not a violent crime or for as long as the victim didn’t die, it doesn’t need much awareness.”

Though she’s now back in the Philippines and studying for a law degree, she says the case has held an intense impact on her life and mental health. She had to scrub her social media accounts and she still worries for her children, who were scrutinized by netizens after she publicly complained.

Kann Vicheika makes a pointed effort to discuss her experiences as a senior freelance journalist with young women interested in the media, though she tells them she’s frequently harassed both by government officials and online commenters for her outspoken comments and critical interview questions.

But in the two separate times she was sexually assaulted by two different colleagues, she says she froze, shocked by the aggressive behavior of people on her team. She filed a complaint about the most recent assaults, which happened between 2019 and last year, but she says she felt like a “double victim” in the end.

“The questions they asked me, it referred to whether I was a bad woman who [was trying to] find a point to accuse that guy,” she says. “It was so unfair. Those questions are usually accusing me instead.”

Vicheika says she eventually received a letter from the investigating committee, saying they could not offer a solution. She took notes throughout the whole process, and she is thinking of writing an article or book about this, among her challenges as a female journalist.

“If they keep quiet, I think many women journalists will face the same trouble like me, maybe drop their job or leave their job, but for me I will keep fighting,” she said. “Maybe when I speak up in public, those [harassment] cases might be reduced or decreased, that is what we can do.”

When [newsrooms claim] they need women to work with, but they don’t respect women, what do they really mean?

Sun Sokhen, the editor-in-chief of VOD, told us that the organization maintains a trained gender review board to respond to issues in the newsroom.

He says he sometimes catches colleagues using inappropriate language, generally as jokes among friends, and he advises them not to joke that way because they don’t know how it will impact other staff.

He said he is “eager” to add more women to the majority-male digital news staff, with only the women including one reporter, one editor and a part-time consulting editor, who is a co-writer on this piece. He said he had placed ads specific to female reporters and hired a female editor to help on this front, but he felt there were familial and financial pressures keeping women from joining the newsroom.

When we asked if there was more that could be done to balance out the staff, Sokhen says he is not sure.

“Honestly I haven’t known many female journalists. … I asked Bong Theary [VOD editor Pech Sotheary] to reach out to female colleagues who are close to her to submit their applications, but at the end we didn’t see their applications.”

These are positive steps, but it does little good if we aren’t constantly asking interns and reporters, particularly women, about what could make their experience better.

Kong Meta, a freelance journalist who focuses on trafficking, human rights and social issues, said that it’s important to have equitable male and female representation in the newsroom, as women offer a different perspective, and female victims sometimes feel more comfortable talking to another woman. Professional experience is often cited as a reason for choosing not to hire women reporters, but Meta said she felt that could be adapted.

“If [newsrooms] believe they found a female [reporter] but she does not qualify, they should do something about [the qualifications],” she said. “I think it’s more [editors’] loss for their newsrooms.”

If women’s representation in the newsroom is a challenging discussion topic, it’s even harder to bring up LGBTQ representation. I, the foreign journalist, knowing almost no Khmer, once saw one coworker half-heartedly jest with a few colleagues. They only explained to me later that the colleagues were making crude jokes and assumptions about that person’s sexuality. In general, Cambodian people joke about homosexuality with degrading words, they said, and this coworker explained that they endured this teasing frequently, inside and out of the newsroom.

So we, the co-writers on this article, are eager to inspire women to join trainings, go to the field and apply for jobs in a newsroom — and there are plenty of opportunities out there. But we’d also like to see both male and female editors and reporters take the opportunity to face the harassment and discrimination that might be happening on the inside, just as they face their deadlines every day.

Clarification: A journalist’s name and organization have been removed due to a lack of understanding that the quotes would be used for publication.

Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an inaccurate version of the journalist’s quote.

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