Staff of shuttered newspaper struggle to make ends meet

Khy Sovuthy / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Lis Lim and his tuk tuk, now the only way he can make money. KT/Mai Vireak

A disabled man sits in his tuk-tuk on a street near Preah Sisowath High School. He looks dejected as he waits patiently for customers.

His name is Lis Lim. The 43-year-old used to work as a guard for the Cambodia Daily until September, when the newspaper closed following a month-long battle over a $6 million back tax bill.

The government said the publication deliberately evaded paying its dues, but its bosses claimed otherwise.

Mr Lim worked at the paper for more than 20 years and recalls how his employment marked a change in his fortunes.

Born in Kandal province’s Lvea Em district, Mr Lim failed his High School exams in 1991. He worked for a cement factory for a stint and then as a car cleaner, before landing a job at the Daily in 1994.

Pol Meanith, chief translator at the paper, helped Mr Lim get an interview with the then editor-in-chief, Barton Biggs.

Mr Lim barely spoke any English at the time, but luckily that didn’t stop him making an impression.

“I started working for the paper in September 1994 after Mr Biggs gave me the job,” Mr Lim said.

Life was good for the guard, until disaster struck about two years ago.

“I lost half of my right leg in a traffic accident behind  Preah Ang Duong Hospital on my way home from work when a cement truck crashed into my motorbike,” he explained.   

During the time Mr Lim was hospitalised, the paper’s  publisher and editor-in-chief gave him $100, while Khmer and foreign journalists donated between $5 and $10 each to help with his expenses.

The paper also continued paying him his monthly wage while he was unable to work.

“As soon as I recovered, I went back to my job with the paper,” Mr Lim said.

“I worked there for more than 20 years until it closed on September 4.”

At the time of the traffic accident, the guard had been married for just one month and 10 days. Now he has three daughters.

When he found out about the paper’s tax issues, Mr Lim was unconcerned.

KT/Mai Vireak

The Daily’s human resources manager Eam Sopheap also told Mr Lim not to worry, and said the paper’s management was solving its problems with the government.

“I carried on with my work as normal and was shocked when the Daily issued a statement to announce it would shut down,” Mr Lim said.

Since the closure of the paper, the former guard has been surviving by driving a tuk tuk that he bought a few years ago.

Old colleagues told him staff might be paid three months’ wages in severance, but there is still some uncertainty over whether that will materialise.

“Now I am worried about supporting my family,” Mr Lim said. “I’m scared we will face financial troubles and I owe about $1,600 in debt.

“I don’t know how to find money now. If I depend on tuk tuk driving, I cannot repay my debt.”

His disability means it is harder to find alternative work.

“I don’t think I can find another job like the rest of the staff from the paper,” said Mr Lim, adding that he earns just $5 a day from driving.

“I only earn a little from my tuk tuk. Some people do not want to ride with me because they see my disability and worry about their safety, although others give me business because they pity me.”

“I hope to get severance pay to help support my family. I would like the Daily to help me because I worked there for so long and lost my leg whilst I was employed there.”

Since the closure of the paper, its Khmer and foreign staff have been searching for work elsewhere.

Chhorn Chansy, former news editor at the Daily, said the paper used to employ more than 60 journalists and administrative staff members.

“As far as I know, only one out of more than 10 Cambodian reporters has got another newspaper job. That is reporter Ben Sokhean who has been employed by the Phnom Penh Post. Besides him, the others are doing some freelance work,” Mr Chansy said. “We are all job hunting now.”

He said he believed all former Daily staff would get some kind of severance pay, but how much they will receive and when is unknown, since the tax department has frozen the paper’s bank accounts.

“Now we are all concerned about our livelihoods, especially about how we will pay for our children’s studies,” Mr Chansy said.

Ouch Sony, who worked as a translator and reporter for the paper for a decade until its closure, said the majority of his Khmer colleagues are still out of work.

He is unsure about whether or when he will receive any severance.

“Now I am looking for work,” Mr Sony said. “We never wanted any problems and we never expected this to happen.”

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