Plagiarism, Phonyism and Buffoonery at the Khmer Times: Part 1 – The Editorial ColumnsDecember 20, 2015
Let me start out by saying that I don’t really follow Cambodian politics. I couldn’t tell Sam Rainsy from Sam Waterston. I’ve always been much more interested in local news stories about Westerners overdosing in street 172 flophouses or getting arrested at 3 a.m. for fighting with their hookers.
Those sensational expat stories are my wheelhouse, the stuff I love commenting about online. The incessant local news coverage of all the CPP/CNRP squabbling just bores me to tears.
I don’t even have a strong preference among the three local English-language print newspapers. I will happily read any of the papers that the cute waitress at Cadillac Bar hands me when I walk in for breakfast. But if I have to choose, I will usually go for the Cambodia Daily first. I don’t have the necessary attention span to read all those long-winded articles in the Phnom Penh Post, and the Khmer Times has always come across to me as a bit amateurish and “ranty blogger” in tone.
That said, one of the things I love about the Khmer Times is that they frequently cover “expatriate interest” news stories that interest me, like crime on Virak Buntham night buses, the doomsday work permit crackdown, and that totally rapey hostel in Kampot. The Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post are usually too self-important or too slow to properly cover such tabloidish, expat-centric matters.
The Khmer Times’ coverage of these stories, by real Western journalists, has been welcome and well-received. Their coverage has filled an important local void between the unfettered rumormongering about expat interest matters found on Khmer440, and the snooty refusal of the Post and Daily to dirty their hands with stories that expats actually want to read.
With this introduction out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff.
II. HOLY SHIT, LOOK AT WHAT THE KHMER TIMES’ PUBLISHER DID.
A few days ago, a Khmer440 poster using the moniker “CDLongtime” started a discussion thread accusing T. Mohan, the Malaysian publisher and Managing Editor of the Khmer Times, of plagiarizing parts of his December 13 editorial column, titled “Social Media’s Propensity for Creating a Culture of Hatred.” Mr. Mohan apparently lifted whole paragraphs of this column from essays found online about the dangers of social media, including an ESL student’s final exam essay.
Because I am a shit-stirring prick with way too much time on my hands, I started looking at Mr. Mohan’s other Khmer Times editorial columns, to check if the plagiarism exposed by “CDLongtime” was isolated or rampant. I found sixty or so other columns by Mr. Mohan online. I skimmed each of these columns, looking for any well-written or insightful phrases, sentences or paragraphs. Often there weren’t any. When I did find well written sentences, I pasted them into my google search engine to see if there were any prior uses of those sentences online.
The results of this crude investigatory exercise were equal parts surprising, disturbing, and fucking hilarious. On no less than 21 occasions between August 2014 and the present, Mr. Mohan has printed plagiarized content in his Khmer Times editorial columns, often stealing full paragraphs of someone else’s words and reprinting them under his own name.
Mr. Mohan has stolen content from students, academics, and even a priest. However, the primary targets of Mr. Mohan’s plagiarism have been his fellow Malaysian journalists. It seems that Mr. Mohan simply reads coverage of Malaysian political events in the Malaysian papers, then he blatantly and bizarrely republishes full paragraphs of this coverage in the Khmer Times under his own name a few days later, offering it as his own original commentary about Cambodian politics.
Mr. Mohan has stolen content from Malaysia Today, the Malay Mail, and most frequently, from Malaysia’s most popular English language newspaper, The Star. On August 13, 2014, The Star printed a column by Datuk Zaid Ibrahim titled “The Convoluted Anwar and Khalid Story.” The column started like this:
The next day, a column by Mr. Mohan called “The CPP and CNRP Story” was printed in the Khmer Times. It looked like this:
As you can see, Mr. Mohan replaced the names “Anwar and Khalid” with “CPP and CNRP,” and he swapped “in the real word called Cambodia” for “in the real world called Sengalor.” Aside from that, he simply reprinted paragraphs of a Malaysian columnist’s words about Malaysia as his own commentary about Cambodia, the very next day.
It gets worse. Two weeks later, Mr. Mohan wrote a column titled “Mr. Hun Sen’s Exacting Personality.” Here is an excerpt:
Mr. Mohan opines that Hun Sen is exacting and opinionated, and he supports this with observations about Hun Sen “taking jabs” and listing, in point form, misgivings about his cabinet and administration. Mr. Mohan describes an official having a “deja vu moment” when Hun Sen’s “volcano erupted.” He then quotes that official as saying that Hun Sen’s volcano had been “boiling for some time” and “he said he is going to say even more.”
Did any of this really happen? Did Hun Sen really “take jabs” and “list misgivings in point form” about his cabinet, as Mohan describes it? Did Hun Sen’s “volcano erupt” in front of the official that Mohan quotes?
Four days earlier, on August 24, 2014, a column by Joceline Tan titled “Dr. Mahathir on the Attack” was published in The Star. Dr. Mahathir is Malaysia’s former premier. Here is an excerpt from Ms. Tan’s column:
A real journalist, I am not. Real journalists can drink lots of whiskey, smoke cigars without coughing, and if you criticize their writing, they will totally sucker punch you. Real journalists might debate whether Mr. Mohan’s August 28, 2014 column contained news reporting or merely editorial commentary. What I see is a guy who publishes and claims to edit a newspaper in Cambodia printing observations and quotes about the Cambodian prime minister that he knows are absolutely fictitious, because he stole those descriptions and quotes from someone else’s observations of a different political figure in Malaysia.
III. SERIOUSLY, HE DID THIS A LOT.
On August 2, 2015, Mr. Mohan wrote a column titled “Culture of Dialogue or Pragmatic Politics.” Much of the content from this column was shamelessly stolen from an essay written by a Filipino undergraduate student named Raymond Clarence Yu Rodis. In fairness, Mohan’s whole column wasn’t stolen from the Filipino kid, just the beginning, the middle, and the end.
Most troublingly, the Filipino student’s essay quoted from a Filipino Congressman, as follows:
As one congressman so honestly put it after switching parties himself, “You’re not in office for yourself but for your constituents. It’s a big advantage if you’re with the administration because they’re the ones in power who can give benefits to your constituents.”
Mohan’s column then takes this quote and falsely attributes it to a Cambodian politician who supposedly said the words to Mohan personally, over a cup of coffee:
On September 11, 2014, Mr. Mohan used his column to inform Khmer Times readers of “an avalanche of hate comments that have flooded our social media by people of all races and religions, who do not seem to care that their careless comments can hurt the feelings of others.”
Mohan ended the column on a positive note, saying the hateful comments had actually left him “in stitches”:
Was this the truth? Did Mr. Mohan and the Khmer Times really receive an “avalanche” of hate comments that “flooded” their social media from people of all races and religions, but which ultimately left Mohan in stitches?
Did this really happen to Mr. Mohan? Or did it happen to someone else entirely, someone like Wong Chun Wai, the Managing Director of The Star, who wrote word-for-word about the exact same experience, in a column that appeared in The Star just four days earlier?
Some expats who actually follow Cambodian politics will say that the Khmer Times is a “mouthpiece” for the CPP. I don’t know. Many of Mr. Mohan’s editorial columns do seem to rant against Sam Rainsy, the CNRP, NGOs, social media, and foreign “agent provocateurs” who seek disrupt the blissful status quo of happiness, prosperity and bubble gum that Cambodians enjoy under the HE regime.
Mr. Mohan wrote one such lengthy rant on August 30 of this year, in a column titled, “Electoral Promises and Protests – A Digestive Anatomy.” In that column, he accuses politicians and foreign actors of hijacking protest movements in Cambodia. He describes peaceful, friendly protests in Cambodia being hijacked by “familiar faces” — speakers who turned the crowd angry and hateful. Mohan describes that “When the tear gas canisters began to rain, the beautiful smiles and hope faded away.”
It sure sounds like Mohan was describing protests he witnessed, or commenting on the Cambodian protests covered by his reporters. But his descriptions of friendly street protests in Cambodia being hijacked by outsiders and nefarious “familiar faces” until tear gas canisters rained were entirely fictitious. He stole all that stuff from a description of Malaysian anti-government protests that appeared in Free Malaysia Today a week earlier.
IV. ON ETHICS AND CHRISTMAS HANDBAGS
I don’t know much about journalistic ethics. Journalists probably have a bunch of annoying little ethical rules, like “Don’t stare at the cleavage of your female interviewees” and “Don’t wear the same shirt to Quealy’s Bar more than three days in a row.”
But if I had to guess, I’d guess that the two absolutely most important cardinal rules of journalistic ethics are: “Don’t steal another journalist’s material, and don’t make shit up.”
Passing off stolen content as a newspaper’s original material is pretty bad. But what Mohan did is far worse. He didn’t just feed his readers stolen content, he also fed them false content.
Allow me to make a Christmas analogy. Let’s say I walk into a high end department store tomorrow, steal a Louis Vuitton handbag, wrap it up, and give it to my girlfriend for Christmas. That would be an unethical, criminal thing to do, and it would victimize the store that I steal from.
But do you know what would be even sleazier? If I walk into Bangkok’s Patpong Market, steal a counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbag, then wrap it up and give it to my girlfriend and tell her that I bought it and that it’s real.
That’s essentially what T. Mohan did here. He didn’t offer his readers plagiarized but otherwise honest and genuine observations about Cambodia that another local journalist happened to write first. If he had done that, he would have been caught immediately, just like I would probably get caught rather quickly if I tried to shoplift a genuine handbag from Bloomingdale’s.
Instead, Mr. Mohan took an easier but even more deceitful path. He repeatedly stole knock off content from Malaysian newspapers about things happening there, figuring that no one in Cambodia was looking. Then he wrapped this counterfeit content up for his Khmer Times readers by occasionally changing a few of the names, and sold it to them as genuine content and commentary concerning the CPP, CNRP, and political events in Cambodia.
Why did Mr. Mohan do this? Perhaps to sell newspapers, but also to desperately push an editorial political agenda that he couldn’t support simply by relying on own his own reporters’ truthful and professional reporting of events that really occurred in Cambodia.
So what happens next? Shortly after the Mohan plagiarism brouhaha appeared in the Khmer440 discussion forums, the Khmer Times printed this notice:
The notice informs readers that the paper is investigating allegations of plagiarism in “several opinion pieces.” The word “several” literally means “more than two, but not many.” We’re now up to 21 documented instances of plagiarism, which I’d suggest is way north of “several,” and pretty far into the realm of “many.”
I also think it will be hard for the Khmer Times editors to credibly diminish Mr. Mohan’s misconduct as mere plagiarism limited to “opinion pieces.” Mr. Mohan has used his pulpit as publisher and Managing Editor of the Khmer Times not just to brazenly steal other journalists’ content, but also to attribute false quotes, describe imaginary conversations, and falsely tell his readers about a non-existent avalanche of hate comments that his paper never really received.
Mr. Mohan and the editors who serve him at the Khmer Times will probably be judged by the expat community, by other journalists, and by the jackass keyboard warriors on Khmer440 according to how they respond to all these allegations.
Anyway, please stay tuned for the next installment in this series: Plagiarism, Phonyism and Buffoonery at the Khmer Times: Part 2 – Fake Letters to the Editor.