Local media loses a giant, and The Post a great friend

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Cheang Sokha is survived by his wife and three children, Sokha David, 12, Sokha Ratanak, 10 and Sokha Solita, 5. Sam Rith

Cheang Sokha, a gifted and streetwise reporter who rose to the highest ranks of Cambodian media and was beloved for his sharp intelligence, world-class humour and endless generosity, died on Friday in his hometown of Phnom Penh. He was 42.

His wife, Sok Sophorn, said he was brought down by cancer that had been diagnosed as terminal only weeks before. His sudden illness and rapid decline inspired an outpouring of grief from the local press corps, government officials and the scores of foreign reporters with whom he had worked for more than two decades.

Cheang Sokha was cremated on January 24 at Wat Kamsan, near the home he shared with his wife and three children, in a Buddhist ceremony presided over by Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, his longtime friend who lamented the loss of a “great comrade”.

The minister had earlier pledged that he would pay for the education of Cheang Sokha’s children until graduation.

“He was a great journalist and wonderful colleague. Our memories of his kindness and his conscience are many,” said Huy Vannak, president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, an organisation that was co-founded by Cheang Sokha and for which he was chairman of the Committee to Protect the Rights of Journalists.

“He always cared about the image of Cambodia,” Vannak said. “When big events happened in the country, he always wanted good reporting and great pictures. Cheang Sokha wanted to see the truth and beauty of the country on the pages of the newspaper.”

‘A Great Journalist’

Cheang Sokha launched his career at The Post. He was hired as a fledgling reporter by publisher Michael Hayes in 2003, when it was a twice-monthly paper, and left in 2015 when it was a daily and he had been its chief of staff for four years.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Sokha launched his career at The Post in 2003. Photo supplied

Later in 2015, he went to Khmer Times, where he was editor in chief until 2020.

As a reporter at The Post, he was fearless: writing about corruption, human trafficking, illegal logging, land grabbing, forced evictions and the Khmer Rouge tribunal. He was also strategic, leaning on his business reporting skills to document the rise of microfinance banks, gold trading and the gambling industry.

In 2007, he was the first journalist to expose the widespread sale of Cambodian islands and coastal land to foreign companies – a story that continues to shape life and commerce in Preah Sihanoukville province.

A year earlier, he set out on rafts with Stung Treng’s anti-drug police to cover the smuggling of crystal methamphetamine down the Mekong River from Laos.

“He worked hard and he was brave. What more can you ask?” said May Titthara, a veteran newsman and close friend. “Cambodia has lost a great journalist.”

A ‘Big Brother’ lost

Cheang Sokha was widely respected by colleagues, not only for his uncanny nose for a story and leadership qualities, but for promoting higher news standards and for standing up to powerful figures, less-than-truthful sources and “parachute” reporters in town for a quick byline.

He bristled at foreign reporters who treated Khmer journalists as translators and looked with disdain at those who could not hold their own in the field – or at the bar.

Cheang Sokha belonged to a brash and successful generation of Khmer journalists that includes well-known names such as Prak Chan Thul, Kay Kimsong, Bou Saroeun and Sam Rith, the current managing editor of The Post.

As Cambodia’s media landscape changed, he evolved as well. In recent years, he was as often seen wearing sharp suits, rubbing shoulders with diplomats and business leaders, or giving a speech – as he was seen out having after-work beers with his many friends, none better than Vong Sokheng, The Post’s longtime national news editor.

Over time, he had become a mentor for Cambodia’s young journalists.

“He was like a big brother who always provided care and support to me and other colleagues. I knew that I could always lean on him when I had problems,” said Taing Vida, a civil society official who had worked with Cheang Sokha since 2014.

“It was a heartbreaking moment for me and other colleagues to hear that we will lose him forever.”

‘Always ready to help’

Cheang Sokha was born on January 11, 1979, to a family of farmers in Baset district, Kampong Speu province. He was marked by ambition at an early age.

He was working as a stringer for Reuters and the Nikkei Shinbum even before graduating from Preah Sisowath High School in 1999. His first official journalism job was for the Khmer-language newspaper the Nokor Santepheap News the same year.

After completing a journalism training course at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 2000, he spent two years at The Business News, an English-language weekly. He then worked as a coordinator for the Childs Rights Project for the International Federation of Journalists.

“His death was not only a great loss for his family but also the loss of a huge figure in the Cambodian press,” said Nguon Sovan, a reporter for Xinhua news who has known Sokha since 2000 when they both worked at The Business News. “He was a great guy and always ready to help friends who were in need.”

When he arrived at The Post, Phnom Penh was a rollicking newspaper town, with The Post facing off against the Cambodia Daily, Cambodge Soir and a host of wire services.

Ex-pat journalists turned to Cheang Sokha because he could unlock anything, get any source at any hour. He worked closely with accomplished reporters such as Cat Barton, Liam Cochrane, Stuart White and Tracey Shelton. Chad Williams, a former managing editor of The Post, said he was a master at solving problems.

All who knew Cheang Sokha realised he had a rich life outside the newsroom. He loved his cows, for one thing, as well as growing corn. Yet his heart was always with his family. He is survived by his wife and three children, Sokha David, 12, Sokha Ratanak, 10 and Sokha Solita, 5.

His last words were a testament to family. As a close relative said, he used his last conversations to urge his children to complete their education – but saved his last words for his wife.

“Honey,” he said, “I love you.”