Passing of a Cambodian Journalist

Ly Kim-Song; a great journalistic backbone: 1943-2007

Any idiot can cover a firefight, it has often been said among journalists. The real trick is getting in, getting out and not fouling up the job by getting yourself killed.

Success depends on common sense, solid equipment and most importantly your backup. For many a journalist and photographer in Cambodia Ly Kim-Song was that backup.

Mr Song, as he was known to everyone, died suddenly on Sunday, January 14, after a period of illness. He was 64.

Song was born in the southeastern province of Svay Rieng where he spent his formative years before moving to Phnom Penh. He graduated from Sisowath High School, married Tat Kim Huoy in 1966 and they had three sons, two daughters and seven grandchildren.

In those early years, his family totally depended on Song in a part of the world that was being engulfed by war. An ethnic Vietnamese with a distaste for communists, he feared the Khmer Rouge far more than the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese and in 1973 he booked the flights and took his family to Saigon.

There he worked in a soft drink factory, raising his children as the world around him descended into chaos. South Vietnam was consumed by the North, as his cherished homeland — Cambodia — was devastated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and then Hanoi invaded, which would occupy it for a decade marked by vicious fighting.

While Song, like too many other Cambodians, never attended university, his intellect was formidable. He was fluent in six languages plus some Russian. His French was parfait and this soon came to the attention of the communist authorities in Saigon who were eager to employ him. But he loathed the thuggery which had accompanied communist rule and decided he would rather pedal a cyclo than join the ruling elite.

In 1983 he returned to his homeland and did just that for the next eight years until he chanced upon Sheri Prasso, the first bureau chief for Agence France-Presse (AFP) since before Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge.

Mr Song was swiftly employed in 1991, becoming the backbone of the AFP operation, and alongside Cambodian journalist Reach Sambath forged a formidable team that enabled seven bureau chiefs, dozens of journalists and photographers and hundreds of others who drifted through the office looking for help — to cover a terrific, if often troubled, country.

Diminutive in stature — he described himself as “svelte and sexy” — Song worked his heart out. He translated, spotted errors in news stories, controlled the accounts, sorted satellite dishes and phone lines, massaged egos, launched and nursed many a hangover, dealt with belligerent authorities and dilettante journalists, and knew who could be counted on and who could not.

He once hugged me, shoved 5,000 dollars in my pocket and said bon courage. Then I left for Iraq. He hugged me again when I returned then asked for the receipts. He said “war is not good” then fetched a lot of cold beer.

Song rarely, if ever, criticised others but would cringe and could hardly contain himself when Cambodian politicians delivered vitriolic anti-Vietnamese diatribes to score cheap political points, particularly in the lead-up to elections.

Song would calm quickly but his words carried a greater sting: “Look at this country, they have learned nothing.” At barbecues and parties I more than once saw Song control an assortment of diplomats, Khmer Rouge experts, academics and journalists with the learned wit of an honest man who was the equal of any.

Adults would sit cross legged on the floor, like children being entertained by a fairy tale, as he sat in a chair and satisfied their curiosity about Cambodia past and present. Cambodia is too often criticised for lacking strong characters with an integrity to match.

When I felt like that, I only had to look at Mr Song to feel sorry that such a thought had entered my head. AFP’s Cambodian correspondent Suy Se said it simply: ” We are sad by the sudden loss of Mr Song, a great personality.”

Luke Hunt based in Hong Kong and has covered Cambodia for many years. He was Phnom Penh bureau chief forAgence France-Presse from 2001 to 2004.