Trouble at TEDxPP: Ray Leos RespondsJune 19, 2012
I would like to thank K440 for giving me the opportunity to clear up any inaccurate information that continues to circulate in the wake of the recent TEDx Phnom Penh event at Pannasastra University of Cambodia.
I’d also like to offer what I hope will be constructive suggestions on how to improve events like TEDx Phnom Penh in the future, and to better harmonize the intentions of events like these with the realities of their operating environments in the future.
I want to make it clear at the outset that I am writing on my own behalf and not officially on behalf of the university where I am employed as Dean of its Faculty of Communications and Media Arts. Pannasastra University has already issued a formal statement regarding this matter, which has been posted on the school’s website and also published in the June 12 edition of The Cambodia Daily.
I also want to make it clear that TEDx Phnom Penh was neither initiated nor organized by the university. This was an outside initiative and the organizers had no affiliation whatsoever with the school. The school was approached by TEDx, and thereby granted a venue for the event, and because of this it was listed as a co-sponsor on the TEDx Phnom Penh promotional materials and signage.
In the interest of full disclosure, a few things about myself: I have lived and worked here in Cambodia for nearly eleven years, working as a teacher, researcher, independent consultant and NGO project evaluator. In addition to my main job at the university, I have worked as a consultant and advisor for several local human rights NGOs over the years. And yes, like of many of us who work in the development field in Cambodia, I do occasionally engage with the government sector, and have worked on a number of donor funded development projects. In recent months I have worked as a consultant with the National Assembly where I’m currently involved in staff training and development. My current duties there involve teaching an international affairs course for the staff of the Assembly’s international relations department and translation teams.
For those who aren’t familiar with the acronym, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation. The main conference is held in the United States, but independently organized TED events, known as TEDx are licensed by TED and are held all over the world. The local license holders must follow the TED policies and regulations, and also must establish clear internal rules, regulations and transparency procedures. In 2011, TEDx Phnom Penh was held at Northbridge International School.
The license for this year’s TEDx event was held by a Western expatriate resident of Phnom Penh, who was the managing director of a social enterprise in town and who worked with the NGO sector here for several years. Although I had contact with several other members of the TEDx organizing team during the run up to the event, the TEDx Phnom Penh license holder was my primary contact. and has been identified in various Phnom Penh Post articles as either an “organizer” or as “one of the main TEDx organizers.”
My initial contact with TEDx came in late April, a little over a month before the event. Previously, some of the organizers, through professional and personal contacts, initially enlisted the assistance of our Dean of Architecture (who for the record is Khmer) to secure our university’s Srey Dim Conference Hall for the event. Then after several weeks, our Architecture Dean decided to end his involvement with TEDx. The school then appointed me and our South Campus facility manager to serve as university liaisons with the TEDx team.
After being appointed as the university liaison to TEDx, I invited the license holder and other members of the TEDx team to several meetings in my office. During the meetings I informed them that PUC was a private university and that our campus and the event facility, the Srey Dim Conference Hall, was private property. I also explained that although we were willing to work with TEDx Phnom Penh to ensure a successful event, TEDx was obliged to follow and respect all university regulations and policies. The organizing committee members stated they understood this. They informed me that TEDx would respect our wishes and accept the conditions under which it would be allowed on our university campus.
Preparations continued, and then several days before the event, the license holder informed me that one of the performances in the program, “Grand Finale” contained “possibly sensitive material” and as a result, she requested that it was most important that I be present to observe the performance’s final dress rehearsal on the Friday night before the Saturday show. She told me that the TEDx organizing team wanted me to give my decision on whether the content was appropriate for our venue and whether it was in contravention of our internal rules and regulations. She added that that her team would completely abide with and respect any decision that I made.
About two days prior to the event, I received a copy of the event program from the organizers. I believe this program was also publicly released in advance by TEDx Phnom Penh and was posted on its website. The program clearly listed the speakers and performers, and the topics of their talks—all except for one—the “Grand Finale”. There was no listing of the speakers or participants, no photographs, no title given and no synopsis of their talk—it merely read “Ensemble: Grand Finale.”
On Friday afternoon we viewed the dress rehearsal for the performances—all except for the final act. TEDx had still not yet given me any specific information regarding the content of the “Grand Finale” performance by the “Ensemble.”
Finally, on Friday evening, and just before the “Grand Finale” dress rehearsal, the TEDx team provided me with an English language translation of the transcript of the performance. This occurred at approximately 8pm, a little more than 24 hours before the show was slated to kick off. The stage had been built, dressed and readied; all seats had been sold; all logistical arrangements had been completed. All that was left was the dress rehearsal for the “Grand Finale”.
I read the transcript of the presentation twice and made no comment. I then walked down to the front of the auditorium and sat behind a table directly in front of the stage. Shortly thereafter, the rehearsal for “Grand Finale” began. I viewed “Grand Finale” in the presence of TEDx staff, and I allowed the performance rehearsal to continue in its entirety without interruption or comment. I can speak and understand Khmer, so I listened carefully and also watched the accompanying multi media presentation that accompanied the speakers to establish a proper context for the presentation. After the rehearsal concluded, I read the transcript a third time. Then without comment, I suggested that all stakeholder representatives meet for a private executive session in an adjoining classroom and all agreed.
Participants in the private meeting included several members of the TEDx team (including the license holder), two representatives from the one of the TEDx Phnom Penh business sponsors, and a representative of the activists who were involved in the performance. As some of you may already know, this private meeting was secretly taped by one of the participants (the TEDx team categorically denied involvement in this). Legal aspects aside, this was a regrettable and unfortunate act, and in direct violation of the participants’ right of privacy.
However, what I can say is that at this meeting I announced my decision to cancel the “Grand Finale” performance. This was based on what I, as a university administrator and Dean, felt was in the best interest of our university and its students.
I also based my decision on the University’s Code of Conduct, which states:
“All political rallies and manifestations of any kind are prohibited on the University premises. Only these meetings authorized, in advance by the General Administration’s Office will be allowed.”
The Code of Conduct and this specific regulation have been in place since the university began operations 13 years ago. As a senior administrator and Dean, I am obligated to follow the provisions of my employment contract, which states that I must follow all internal regulations and policies of the university and ensure that they are enforced.
I was the only senior administrator present on campus that evening. It must also be noted that whilst PUC is a private school, the university is given official legal authority to operate in Cambodia based on the school’s pledge to follow its own internal rules and regulations. If it is found that the school is not following its internal rules and regulations, the school’s ability to operate as an academic institution in Cambodia could be placed in jeopardy.
Another fact that hasn’t been discussed very much is the position of the TEDx Phnom Penh business /corporate sponsors.
The business sponsors who were present at the meeting also completely agreed with the decision to cancel the final performance, and did not want their company to be associated with it. They also felt that no further deliberation was necessary. After hearing from all of representatives in the meeting room, TEDx agreed to follow our decision and the sponsor’s decision. The meeting then adjourned.
I must also mention that I was later approached by some members of the TEDx team who indicated to me that they were not aware of the specific content of the “Grand Finale” and apologized for the difficult position the university and myself were placed in.
The next morning, I was finally able to contact members of the university administration. At approximately 9:30 am, an emergency meeting of top management was held on the PUC campus.
It must be noted that all the PUC administrators present at the meeting, with the exception of myself, were Khmer.
At the beginning of the meeting, none of the administrators had any inkling of what had transpired the night before, and, in fact most were in the dark about what the TEDx event was all about. All of this came as a total surprise to them.
Copies of the performance transcript were handed out and read by each administrator present at the meeting. The feeling was unanimous among the administrators that the material was in clear breach of the university’s Code of Conduct prohibiting political rallies or manifestations on campus.
My colleagues, all Cambodian nationals, fully supported my decision, supported my reasons for it, and further stated that I was totally within my authority as a Dean and senior administrator to make the decision that I did.
I also contacted all of the other Deans (both Khmer and foreign) at the university, and briefed them of the content of the performance material and my decision. They all agreed that the material clearly fell within our Code of Conduct and all of them strongly supported my decision.
The TEDx event on Saturday went off pretty much without a hitch. Aside from some misunderstandings regarding the signing of the facility use contract with the organizers (which was eventually resolved), and a power outage during the afternoon (which contrary to some wild rumors had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of censorship) things went really well. The show ended with a boisterous and emotional finale by the Messenger Band and Klap Ya Hanz, which ended the day on a stirring and positive note.
By noon, word was spreading along the Phnom Penh rumor grapevine that a possible disruption was being planned later that afternoon in the auditorium as a reaction to the events on Friday night. This caused the PUC security guards (many of them moonlighting cops) to be present around the auditorium during the afternoon session. Regrettably, this caused some more wild rumors to circulate regarding outside military police presence on campus, which turned out to be false.
Some media fallout regarding the cancelled performance occurred almost immediately after the event. The school and myself quickly came under fire in some quarters for our decision.
Two statements were issued by TEDx the next day, the first of which was released around noon and which, I believe, was later removed by the organizers. Later that day a second statement, “A Note on Removed Content” was released. (I believe it is still posted on the TEDx Phnom Penh website) In this second statement, the organizers supported the university’s right as a venue host to make the decision it made. Further, it stated the “Grand Finale” would be independently produced as a video in the coming weeks and would not constitute an official part of TEDx Phnom Penh. Accordingly, the video will not feature any TEDx Phnom Penh logos or branding.
Frankly speaking, I felt blindsided and a bit sandbagged by the events on that Friday night.
I felt even more strongly about this after reading the TEDx Phnom Penh internal rules and regulations. Included in these regulations is a stipulation that before they are invited to speak at TEDx Phnom Penh, all potential presenters are reviewed by a speakers committee drawn from leading members of the Phnom Penh community. All potential speakers and presenters had to submit their nomination forms by March 6, 2012 in order to be eligible for selection by the speakers committee. After the speakers committee made its selections, the names of the speakers and presenters were officially announced by TEDx on May 8, 2012.
However, this was not done for the “Grand Finale”. The “Grand Finale” did not go through the required speaker committee review and selection process and instead, was secretly inserted into the program by the license holder and several of her colleagues. In the Phnom Penh Post article of June 11, 2012 the license holder admitted that “everything was kept as secret as possible” and months of planning for the performance went on behind the scenes. The article further stated that the license holder and her colleagues kept the planning covert because of what they considered to be “the subject matter’s sensitivity”. And, as mentioned above, along with many of the TEDx organizers and participants, neither the university nor the business sponsors were privy to the content of the “Grand Finale” until the night of the dress rehearsal.
I want to make it absolutely clear I an not fixing blame for this fiasco on any of the Cambodian activists who were going to participate in the performance, and who were obviously not aware of the TEDx internal rules and policies or of the university’s internal rules and regulations. Nor am I fixing blame for this on the vast majority of TEDx organizers and participants who were also not kept in the loop and informed ahead of time, and who were respectful of the university’s internal rules and regulations.
As for the TEDx license holder, I have been informed that she no longer resides in Cambodia: she flew out of the country a day or two after the TEDx event ended.
In closing, I would like to offer some suggestions for the organizers of TEDx Phnom Penh as well for other groups who also planning similar initiatives.
1. Make this a Cambodian led and organized event
Although several Cambodian names were listed as participants in the TEDx Phnom Penh promotional materials and website, it appeared to me that most of the active leaders of the organization were Western expatriates. In my opinion, most of the staff and leadership in TEDx organizing team should be Cambodian, with of course some help provided by expats—but it should be a primarily Cambodian led project. I think most of us who have lived here for several years are well aware of the great number of talented, passionate, and creative young Cambodians who could easily take charge of such an event. I have seen it and have experienced it myself when our university hosted the first ever “ Cambodian Blogger Summit” and various “Bar Camps”, in which the organizers were all young Cambodians, and which involved robust discussions on vital, important, and even controversial subjects related to the internet and free expression of ideas. I can also point to the recent “Khmer Talks” and “Film Camp” events and a myriad of other events and initiatives primarily run and organized by young Khmers.
Related to this I also believe that any subsequent TEDx license holder should be Cambodian. I have been informed that the license holder for next year’s event will be Cambodian, and I do hope it remains that way in the future.
2. Better internal organization and communication
I feel that many of the missteps that afflicted this year’s TEDx were due to some members of the organizing committee not being kept fully informed “or in the loop” as to what other members of the committee were doing or deciding. There also needs to be a more coherent, better organized, and better coordinated decision making process.
3. More transparency
This has been something that has been already discussed in the months before the event, and even publicly acknowledged by some members of the TEDx organizing committee. How are the speakers selected? Who gets chosen to be on the speaker’s committee? What kinds of criteria, if any are used to choose the speakers?
Also, the secret insertion of speakers into the event program without the knowledge of the speakers committee and without informing venue providers, sponsors, and organizing committee members well in advance, should not be tolerated by any future TEDx organizing committees. These kinds of shenanigans can seriously damage the event’s reputation and credibility with potential venue providers, sponsors and even the public at large.
I am sure that next year’s TEDx team is already discussing these issues, and I also plan to meet with some members of the team in the coming weeks to further discuss these matters and offer other ideas and suggestions.
Finally, as a side note, I recently had a conversation with a Cambodian American pal of mine who lives here and was amused by all the TEDx drama and media fallout. He told me a number of Cambodians he talked to and who were aware of the event, perceived it as an “expat war” thing.
Even though I still stand by the decision I made, and it was fully supported by the Cambodian management at the university, I totally understand what he meant. Therefore, I am recommending to the school that in the future, any decisions regarding the university Code of Conduct should not be left to non-Cambodian senior administrators like myself, and instead, should be made only by Cambodian senior administrators.
Again, I would to express my thanks to K440 for giving me this platform to fully present my side of the story and to offer what I hope are some constructive suggestions.