Reckoning with the Khmer Rouge

Journalists covering the Khmer Rouge tribunal are learning how to confront painful and seldom discussed memories of the atrocities that devastated all of Cambodia.

Three decades have passed since the end of the “Khmer Rouge period” — three years, eight months and twenty days during which a brutal regime claimed around 1.7 million lives, more than one in every five Cambodians.

Since then, most survivors have been suffering silently, without any aspiration to mention the awful events of their pasts aloud.

That silence is now breaking, step by step, as a handful of top Khmer Rouge officials are finally being tried for crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The trial, informally known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, has engaged journalists and international non-governmental organizations and groups, causing more people to focus on and talk about the atrocities that occured under Khmer Rouge rule.

But, as documented in a paper based on interviews with over a thousand Cambodians and published in the Aug. 6, 2009 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, confronting those atrocities has an inbuilt tension: More than 75 percent of Cambodians believe the tribunal will provide justice and promote reconciliation, but almost 93 percent of those aware of the trials say it will also “produce painful memories.”

Cambodian journalists reporting on the tribunal are faced with the challenge of navigating this tension as they deal with traumatized interview subjects and readers. It’s a task for which many found themselves unprepared.

Uon Chhin, a radio reporter for Radio Free Asia, has covered much of the Khmer Rouge trial as well as the stories of survivors, and has found these subjects more difficult to report on than any other social issue.

“It’s hard to find an interesting angle of the trial, and especially when I have to interview the Khmer Rouge victims,” says Chhin. “It [has] even become a really tough job for me when the interviewees feel not at ease to talk, and they start to cry.”

Khou Hav, a media graduate student who produced the documentary film “Two War Generations,” in which a mother and daughter describe how they survived the Khmer Rouge era, agrees.

“I sometimes feel guilty to make my interviewees cry, and I don’t [know] how to deal with this problem,” says Hav. “It seems that I make them suffer even more.”

According to Dr. Chhim Sotheara, a Khmer Rouge survivor, psychiatrist and executive director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, public discussion of trauma is rare in Cambodian society, and victims themselves try to avoid talking about it.

“[Covering the Khmer Rouge tribunal] becomes a hard topic for journalists because it is a sensitive issue, and most journalists do not understand about trauma,” he says.

Concerned with this hardship, DW-AKADEMIE — the training institute of Germany’s international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle — arranged two workshops for Cambodian journalists on trauma and Khmer Rouge Tribunal reporting. The first was held in November 2007 and focused on theories and techniques for approaching traumatized interviewees. The second workshop, held in October 2008 in conjunction with Dart Centre Australasia, focused on practice, and the participants applied what they had learned to real reporting.

The workshops were managed by Dr. Andrea Rübenacker, head of DW-AKADEMIE’s Africa Division. Rübenacker says that DW-AKADEMIE considers Cambodia's engagement with its history to be a very important topic, especially for journalists.

“We have trained journalists that are now covering the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the stories closely connected to the tribunal. Radio and television journalists need to know how to approach traumatized people, how to interview them.”

During the four weeks of workshops, the participating journalists were taught techniques for interviewing traumatized people in a professional way, facts about the long-term effects of trauma and approaches for keeping their journalistic story in mind and yet at the same time allowing their interviewees to be in charge to an extent.

Rübenacker notes that the participants learned that a traumatized interviewee has to be treated in a very special way, different than, for example, a politician. Time, patience as well as empathy are needed, while, at the same time, one should not forget to maintain a safe emotional distance from the interviewee.

“It’s a thin line journalists are walking on when interviewing a traumatized person, but it’s worth trying to keep this balance on this thin line in a professional, well-trained way,” she says.

Chhin and Hav were among the participants who attended the trauma reporting workshops. They say the theories and techniques taught in the workshops have proven useful as they cover the Khmer Rouge trial.

“The concepts and techniques on trauma reporting that I have learned act as a reminder when I interview my sources,” says Chhin. “I have become more careful when conducting interviews with the victims and I know how to deal with traumatized people. For example, when my interviewee starts to cry, I try to comfort them and ask them different questions.”

Khou Hav is now working as a writer for the Youth for Peace magazine, Youth Today, which focuses on memories of the Khmer Rouge period, peace, justice and reconciliation.

Hav claims that during interviews his biggest challenge is that most of the victims don’t want to talk about their past sufferings. “I have to comfort and build trust with them so that they dare to speak out,” he says. “I didn't know this technique before. Asking them about their sufferings and making them cry seem to make more problems for my interviewees, and I also don’t feel well. But now I believe that helping them to speak out can make them feel a sense of relief.”

Sotheara says that such training is essential — for both the journalist and the interviewee.

“Those who report trauma stories may have psychological effects if they do not know how to deal with trauma. At the same time, if they do not approach or ask traumatized people in a correct manner, it means that they make the victims feel worse,” he says.

Although all the concepts and techniques learned during the workshop are useful, Chhin says that he would like to learn more — in particular, about ethically shooting, editing and writing professional TV reports.

Seeing the significance of the Cambodian training, Rübenacker says there will be more workshops on the agenda at DW-AKADEMIE in the years to come:

From my point of view, it does make a lot of sense in a country such as Cambodia where the past has and the people have been silenced for many, many years. In trauma reporting you learn that breaking this silence is part of the process of healing. But the breaking of this silence needs well-trained journalists that understand the topic of trauma and its impact on people and a country.