Recap of the Tedx Phnom Penh Debacle
Participants of the TedxPhnomPenh event at an after party at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Saturday night.
*Full disclosure: As you can see from our Tumblr description, all of our members are affiliated with Pannasastra University and the department of communications and media arts.
What happend on Saturday? Did a brand-name conference, created to promote the free flow and exchange of ideas, become a victim of censorship? Self-censorship? Government pressure? Or did a lone administrator react to protect an academic institution from being involved in the country’s tempestuous political environment?
Here’s a short recap and some of what the main actors are saying.
Let’s start from the planning stages early this year. According to TedxPhnomPenh, a presentation on land rights in the country originated from event license holder Allie Hoffman. Hoffman and the participants kept the finale under wraps in fear of…exactly what happened.
Inspired by the death of environmental activist Chut Vutty, TEDxPhnomPenh license holder Allie Hoffman invited activists from Borei Keila, Dey Krahom and the Venerable Noun Sovath to produce a short presentation on land rights in Cambodia. This presentation, titled only “Grand Finale”, was tentatively scheduled as the closing performance for TEDxPhnomPenh… due to the potentially sensitive nature of “Grand Finale”, Allie did not publicly disclose the contents of the Finale until it was nearly completed. At this point, the TEDxPhnomPenh Planning Team insisted that sponsors and representatives from Pannasastra University be invited to attend a rehearsal of the performance for review.
So, yes, fast forward to Friday—the day before the event. Tedx organizers invited the university’s dean of communications, Ray Leos, and sponsors to the rehearsal.
According to TedxPhnomPenh, they were not pleased.
After a review of the content, Pannasastra University was unable to permit the performance to proceed on their premises because of their concerns about the government’s response to its critical content. [The statement on the website originally read: “The TEDxPhnomPenh Team expresses its sadness that a scheduled talk at the end of our program called ‘Grand Finale’ was cancelled due to concerns from our venue that the content would jeopardize the safety of the school and its students.”]
Tedx cancelled the “Grand Finale” and the majority of the audience on Saturday, including members of our Tumblr who attended the event, had no idea about the pre-planned land rights presentation.
All was well Saturday night. They partied hard and celebrated at FCC, patted each other on the back…But over the weekend, according to the Post, a “surreptitious recording of Friday’s meeting [about the cancelled finale] was posted on the internet.” [We can’t find it.]
The Post covered the story and publishes it on the front page of Monday’s paper. Cries of Censorship! Self-censorship! Shame! Spineless! echo throughout the internet. The Lichado director gets a nice quote in the story.
“This is supposedly the most prestigious university in Cambodia; it’s really shameful that a private entity in education would prevent a panel of activists from talking about social issues,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said.
So does the son of the slain activist Chut Wutty, the key speaker for the cancelled finale:
“They are scared because my topic is hot and it will affect their university, that’s why they did not allow us to do it.”
And the kicker is reserved for the Activist monk Loun Sovath:
“We did not [attack] the government, but we just said the real situation happening in society.”
Okay. Let’s pause it here and revisit the decision to cancel the performance. From all accounts, it looks like the decision was made quickly—12 hours before the event. And, from a statement released by Pannasastra, the decision was made by one man, Ray Leos, the dean of the communications department.
It should be noted that Dean Leos was the only senior administrator present on campus during these performance rehearsals on Friday evening, 8 June, the day before the event. We strongly claim that no one—no one at the university and no one in any government authority—ordered Dean Leos to do anything and/or threatened the director of the university. This decision was solely Dean Leos’ decision, and he takes full responsibility for it. His decision was solely based on the university’s policy and regulations.
So, according to PUC’s statement, it’s all on the dean—the decision to self-censor or to protect the school and students or to protect the sponsors or…Let’s hear what he has to say. From the Post story:
“Our internal regulations at our school prohibit any political rallies and political manifestations of any kind.”
“I made a decision based on my position as an administrator and a dean of what was in the best interest of the school and the students. And also, [because] this was not an appropriate venue for such a performance.”
“It’s unfortunate that this incident, and the publishing of these tapes, has taken away the focus on what I thought was a great day on Saturday – a great, uplifting day with some great speakers.” [Where are these “tapes”? Where is this “surreptitiously” recorded video/audio of the meeting?]
According to the dean and the statement released by PUC, Leos was just following the school’s regulations. This goes against TedxPhnomPenh’s take that the university had concerns “about the government’s response to its critical content” and that “the content would jeopardize the safety of the school and its students.”
Let’s look at the regulation he’s basing his decision on (from the university’s code of conduct):
“All political rallies and manifestations of any kind are prohibited on the University premises.”
Was this presentation a political rally? A political “manifestation”? Activist monk Loun Sovath and the other presenters didn’t think so. Others participants thought otherwise. Did the dean correctly interpret the regulation? Or was he over zealous in his decision. Did he panic?
Also, where are these “surreptitious”-Zapruder “tapes” of the meeting? This could help shed some light on the decision making process.
(There are some comments floating around on the dean’s nationality/ethnicity and exactly why a “foreigner” would be given the final decision on what was “appropriate” for an event held in Cambodia. Wouldn’t a Khmer administrator have a bit more knowledge on this subject? And perhaps some type of negotiation could have been main concerning the content within the finale? That may be an interesting discussion to have.)
A video of the “Grande Finale” will be coming out in the next few weeks, according to TedxPhnomPenh. If any readers have the full script or links to the video we’d be greatfull if you sent them to us.