By Kounila Keo
Thousands of high school students enter university every year in the hope of studying the right subject for a lucrative job. Business, information technology, and English are among the more popular university majors, but journalism suffers from a perception it is risky.
However, this did not deter Chan Sovannara, 22, who attended journalism classes at Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) in 2007, even though his family warned him he would get a low-paid job by choosing that path.
After taking courses there for a year, he notes that the subjects he learned have taught him to look more critically at the world.
“Both my parents are doctors, so they want me to follow in their footsteps, but I don’t want to,” Chan Sovannara said. “I’m happy to be here. I didn’t pick journalism –it picked me because I truly love it.”
RUPP senior professor Seng Phors said the idea of journalism as a major was still alien to most Cambodian students. “Not a large number of Cambodian youngsters know what journalism is like, and many still see the subject as quite dangerous in a general media context,” he said.
Where others saw the danger in the profession, Chan Sovannara saw romance. Charmed by courageous television scenes of daring journalists carrying cameras and rushing through crowds, he followed his older brother, Chan Soratha, 23, to the media school.
The young brothers were representative of an emerging generation embracing a new attitude in a struggle for freedom through study, Seng Phors said.
The first media department in Cambodia, the Department of Media and Communication, was officialy launched at the Royal University of Phnom Penh with Ministry of Information approval in 2001.
The school, which offers 30 scholarships annually, is sponsored by the Konrad-Adeneur Foundation and the German Development Service.
The curriculum includes print and broadcast media, photography and media arrangement.
“Although we have not caught up with the rest of the world in the media field, we are in a good position to produce qualified media practitioners,” said Tieng Sopheak Vichea, co-director of the eight-year-old media department.
“And, I am proud that our school, though small, is an accredited institute.”
Sopheak Vichea contends that the career plan is not as risky as it may seem. “There are a lot of welcome moves, such as the changes to defamation law, and more people are beginning to understand the importance of journalism,” he said.
The school has trained more than 200 media professionals. Around half the graduates work in NGOs, another 30 percent in media agencies, and the rest in TV, radio and as government spokespersons.
While RUPP print journalism lecturer Eva Rhode doesn’t think youth interest in journalism is necessarily on the rise, she definitely sees her students taking a lot from it.
With a team of 26 journalism students, Eva oversaw the student newspaper Cambodia Votes. The publication covered Cambodia’s 2008 election in-depth, with profiles, interviews and articles.
She said she hoped the experience of producing the newspaper had endowed her students with the hands-on experience that classrooms lacked.
“Journalism is not something that you can simple teach,” she said. “We need to get our students out there, so they can write, edit, make deadlines and publish a real newspaper.”
Eva also coordinates the University’s fledgling internship program, which all second-year students must complete as part of their curriculum.
Students have interned at such high-profile news service such as Agence France-Presse, Deutsche-Press Agentur, The Phnom Penh Post, and Ka-Set, an online news agency.
Um Sarin, president of the Cambodia Association to Protect Journalists, praised the evolution of youth journalism in Cambodia and said the country now offered a good environment for aspiring students to learn the craft.
“In spite of threat, intimidation or any fatal risk toward journalists, young people should not feel discouraged since our country seems to have a good media situation now,” he said.
“Our journalists could be threatened before because we were in a small group, but the more people come in and abide by professionalism, the more this sector will blossom.”