Plagiarism, phonyism and buffoonery at the Khmer Times: Part 2 – The fake letters to the editorDecember 30, 2015
Part 1 of this article discussed rampant plagiarism in columns written by T. Mohan, the publisher and (up until last week) managing editor of the Khmer Times. This part 2 will address some rather dubious “letters to the editor” printed in the Khmer Times, many of which mimic themes in Mr. Mohan’s editorial columns — Hun Sen is good, Facebook is bad, Sam Rainsy probably murdered Buddha.
Before we get to these letters though, let’s discuss why newspapers print letters to the editor in the first place. Letters to the editor are a way for angry uncles and other readers to interact with a newspaper and make their views known to other readers. These letters are a barometer of public opinion on the issues of the day, and they measure how well a paper is engaging its readers. A newspaper that receives many letters from readers praising the paper and expressing support for its news coverage and editorial columns is probably doing a better job than a paper that receives only the occasional expletive-laden missive telling the editors how much they all suck.
II. FAKE LETTERS FROM FICTITIOUS INTELLECTUAL CAMBODIANS
On July 3, 2014, the Khmer Times printed a letter to the editor from “Concerned Cambodian.” The letter expressed concern that a certain unnamed anti-Vietnamese “demagogue” was causing disunity in the country. It was real subtle like that.
The letter invoked American historian Henry Adams, and it expressed dismay that “[p]olarised debates and comments dominate our daily conversations, with the odium being more profound on social media and cyberspace.”
“Odium” is a great word. Hey, how many Cambodians do you know who quote historians and toss around words like “demagogue” and “odium”? Probably zero. But this is actually a recurring feature of the Khmer Times’ Letters to the Editor – numerous anti-CNRP letters purportedly written by Cambodians whose vocabulary rivals that of William F. Buckley.
Alas, I’m sorry to report that this letter to the Khmer Times was a fake. These words decrying the odium of zealotry and anti-Vietnamese racism in local politics were not written by a really well-educated “Concerned Cambodian.” The words were written a day earlier by a Malaysian columnist in The Star:
The phony letter from “Concerned Cambodian” was actually one of three letters to the editor printed in the Khmer Times on July 3, 2014. The next letter was purportedly from a writer in Siem Reap expressing support for a smoking ban. It was also a plagiarized fake.
The final letter, from “Fed Up citizen, Kampot” criticized local government commune chiefs for the CPP’s poor showing in the last election. Was the citizenry of Kampot really “fed up” about their local chiefs failing to deliver for CPP in prior last election? Perhaps not. The words were also taken from a letter to the editor of The Star a few days earlier.
So we know the Khmer Times printed three plagiarized, fake letters on July 3, 2014. That must be some kind of record, right? Sadly, no. On August 28, the Khmer Times printed five letters to the editor purportedly from readers of the paper. All five were fake.
The most notable fake letter printed on August 28, 2014 was from “Khemn Ngoun, Siem Reap.”
Siem Reap does exist, let’s give Mr. Mohan credit for that. But if you google “Khemn Ngoun” (with the exact term in quotes) you will see that the only result returned is this letter to the editor. There is no other record online of the existence of anyone named “Khemn Ngoun.” That’s pretty suspicious.
Predictably, like many of the letters to the editor printed in the Khmer Times, this letter from “Khemn Ngoun” complained about anti-government protests in Cambodia. It urged government leaders to enforce the law against protesters, noting their “uncontrollable violent urges.” Khemn Ngoun also observed that “We don’t have to look far in Cambodia to see how election rhetoric has mutated into racist organizations spewing their venom uncontrolled.”
Khemn Ngoun and his thoughts on violent, uncontrolled racist protests in Cambodia are fictitious. The words were taken from a letter to the editor of a Malaysian newspaper, the Sun Daily, complaining about violence and racism in Malaysia:
The other four letters to the editor printed in the Khmer Times on August 28, 2014 were similarly fraudulent. A letter from “Concerned Cambodian” complaining about graft was taken from a letter to the Star.
The letter from “FB hater” complaining about social media (a pet peeve addressed in several of Mr. Mohan’s columns) was taken from a column in the Sun Daily.
“Touch Seila” was another effort at a Khmer fake name; the letter printed under this name was plagiarized from a letter to The Star six days earlier.
Lastly, the letter from the imaginary “Linda Teng, Singapore” was actually written to the editor of the Sun Daily earlier that month by a probably real person named Denis Hayes.
The fake letters from “Khemn Ngoun” and “Touch Seila” show that someone at the Khmer Times — probably Mr. Mohan — wasn’t very good at thinking up Khmer fake names. Other dubious Khmer letter writers included:
Sok Ponarith (July 31, 2014, questioning whether Cambodian society is doomed, in part due to Facebook)
Aun Srey Vannak (March 24, 2015, says people should stop politicking and government should get back to work)
Hout Wathana (June 16, 2015 street beggars are a traffic nuisance)
Charlie Seng Ponlok (July 16, 2015, denouncing anti-Vietnamese riots)
Tommy Sovannarothh (September 10, 2015, complaining about National Road Number 4)
Sorn Sopheary, Wisconsin (December 1, 2015, thinks Hun Sen is a great and strong leader)
You can google any of those names above, putting the exact name in quotes, and you’ll get no google results for those names ever appearing online except in the Khmer Times letters to the editor. There are no Facebook pages under those names, no twitter accounts, no other online references to anyone ever having those names.
Does that mean that all of those letters, and others, from Cambodians printed in the Khmer Times are fakes? No. But since we know that Mr. Mohan faked other letters from Cambodians by putting fake Khmer names like “Khemn Ngoun” on pro-government letters copied from Malaysian papers, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that he might entirely fabricate other letters and put weird fake Khmer names on them as well.
III. FAKE LETTERS FROM IMAGINARY EXPATS LIKE “RICHIE McDODDS”
Of course, the Khmer Times didn’t just print letters to the editor from Khmers. They also printed a bunch of letters to the editor from Westerners.
Now, there’s an art to choosing a believable Western fake name. You don’t don’t want to pick a name that’s too common, like “Thomas Jones.” That will sound fake. But you also don’t want to choose a ridiculous name like “Doctor Rosenpenis,” the name that “Fletch” famously offered when he was looking for the hospital records room.
Most of the letters to the editor of the Khmer Times from Western writers seem to fall into either the “overly common name” category or the “ridiculous name” category. The Khmer Times printed questionable letters from the following common Anglo-Saxon names:
Mike Samuels, Phnom Penh (July 31, 2014, complaining that the opposition “is determined to spill blood”)
Jason Richards, long term Cambodia resident (February 19, 2015, asking “what in blazes is going on” with work permits)
Timothy Perkins, Washington, DC (August 2, 2015, says maybe Cambodia should turn to China not the US)
Shawn Baker, Visiting Student (August 2, 2015, commends the Khmer Times’ publisher as an “old hand” who has “brought a refreshingly bright and welcome change to the Cambodia English print market.”)
Steven Peters, Phnom Penh (August 25, 2015, complaining of “the provocation of the border disputes by the opposition party politicians”)
Tom Wilkinson, long term resident of Cambodia (September 10, 2015, thinks groups should break away from CNRP)
Bill Jensen, Phnom Penh (December 6, 2015, lamenting that Sam Rainsy has deceived the EU to pressure Cambodia)
We’re pretty good at Khmer440 at tracking down expats online when their names hit the local newspapers, even if they have relatively common names. We just run a search for the expat’s name plus “cambodia” or “phnom,” and usually that will show a real expat’s online presence, like a Facebook page, a LinkedIn page, his Florida mugshots, etc.
But time after time, when I searched online for Khmer Times’ letter writers like “Bill Jensen” and “Tom Wilkinson” having any connection to Cambodia, I got no results. I also asked in the Khmer440 discussion forums if recognized the names of such Western letter writers, some of whom are identified in the Khmer Times as “long term residents” of Cambodia. No one responded that they knew any of these letter writers. This leads me to believe that many of these “expat” letter writers simply do not exist.
As for letters to the Khmer Times from Westerners with ridiculous names, consider the following:
Richie McDodds, Long Beach, former long term resident in Cambodia (September 25, 2014, addressing corruption in Cambodia)
Paul Say Cavnar (October 14, 2015, says Hun Sen “is an astute politician who knows what he has to do for Cambodians and Cambodia but at times lacks the political and the all-important personal will to make the changes direly needed to ensure Cambodia is indeed on the right path,” while Sam Rainsy “knows nothing about policies other than a plethora of demagogic ideas which are seen to be coherent policies”)
Simon Art (November 10, 2014, complaining about sky bridges and poor roads)
Richard Steven Say (November 10, 2015, discussing similarity between Cambodian and Malaysian politics)
Sean Peterson Udom (December 1, 2015, stop weapons shipments to ISIS)
Paul Richards Say (December 26, 2015, believes dual citizen Cambodians shouldn’t be allowed to vote)
The “Richie McDodds” letter addressing corruption is definitely phony; it was plagiarized from this column that appeared in The Star a day earlier.
Two weeks later, the Khmer Times printed two more letters addressing corruption in Cambodia, from “K.C. Wong” and “Tim MacPherson.” The “K.C. Wong” letter was plagiarized from this letter to the editor of The Star by “Tunkul Abdul Aziz.” “Tim MacPherson” also does not exist; that October 6, 2014 letter was plagiarized from a letter by Walter Sandosam printed in The Star three days earlier.
If you google any of the weird names listed above like “Sean Peterson Udom” and “Paul Say Cavnar” you will find no records of these names ever appearing online at any other time except in the Khmer Times’ letters to the editor.
IV. WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL THESE FAKE LETTERS?
The logical assumption is that Mr. Mohan is behind many or all of the fake letters to the editor printed in the Khmer Times. Numerous columns under his name were plagiarized from Malaysian newspapers, and many of the fake letters to the Khmer Times’ editor were plagiarized from the same Malaysian sources.
However, there are also dubious letters to the Khmer Times’ editor that were not plagiarized from Malaysian papers. These appear to be “original” letters written by Mohan or someone else and then attributed to Cambodians or expats with goofy names.
Some of these letters do bear similarities to Mr. Mohan’s writings. Like Mohan’s columns, the letters use a lot exclamation points, and they tend to be pro-government and anti-CNRP. Also, Mr. Mohan is Malaysian, and a disproportionate number of the questionable letters to the Khmer Times editor reference Malaysia in some way.
On February 12, 2015, the Khmer Times printed a letter from “Malaysian Muslim” and also printed a letter from “Robby Wilson” comparing tourist buses in Cambodia to tourist buses in Malaysia. A few months earlier, the Khmer Times printed an odd letter from “Ken G. Swanson, tourist, Scotland.” “Mr. Swanson” supposedly wrote to complain about uncultured Westerners posing nude at Angkor Wat. He drew a comparison with Western tourists who had once posed nude on a sacred Malaysian mountain and caused an earthquake. I didn’t even know Scots believed in that stuff.
Julia Wallace, Editor-at-Large of the Cambodia Daily, pointed out on Twitter about two weeks ago that the Khmer Times “clearly fabricate[s] many letters to the editor.” That’s why I started looking into this to begin with. It turns out that Ms. Wallace was right.
I have also been informed that some Khmer Times’ staff and those with a connection to the newsroom previously suspected that letters to the editor were faked. Is it really plausible that Khmer Times’ competitors and staff knew or suspected that many of their letters to the editors were fake, but the Khmer Times senior editors themselves — who were supposed to have received the letters — knew nothing about these fabrications?
The “letters to the editor” page of the Khmer Times invites readers to send their letters to [email protected] . Almost no one uses the Cambodian postal system, so any letters to the editor would have likely come via this email address.
It is unclear who has access to that email inbox. At times Mr. Mohan would respond personally to letters to the editor. At other times, the then editor-in-chief Jim Brooke asked readers to send letters “to me” at the same email address. If multiple editors at the Khmer Times accessed that email inbox, this would mean that multiple editors knew or should have known that the paper was printing imaginary letters to the editor that it had never actually received.
Mr. Brooke once praised T. Mohan as the Khmer Times’ “tireless and imaginative” leader. I think we can agree that any person who would make the effort to fabricate so many letters from fictional Cambodians and expats is both “tireless” and “imaginative.”
V. WHY THE HELL DID THE KHMER TIMES DO THIS?
Readers want to read popular newspapers. Advertisers want to advertise in popular newspapers. Some of the plagiarized letters were fairly benign, like this fake letter advocating English proficiency for Cambodians (plagiarized from here) or this fake letter from “Concerned Parent” about drowning deaths in Cambodia (plagiarized from here).
I think the Khmer Times printed some of these letters from fake readers in Siem Reap, New York, and Wisconsin, to fill space and give the appearance that the paper was widely read in Cambodia and internationally. On the paper’s one year anniversary, Mr. Brooke cited all the feedback and comments from readers as proof of the paper’s success.
But there was something more nefarious about all this than just the journalistic equivalent of a teenage girl hanging a bunch of fake Valentine’s Day cards in her locker to get attention. The Khmer Times didn’t merely fabricate a few extra “filler” letters to the editor to make its readers and advertisers think it was popular. Many of the fake letters from both Cambodians and expats were substantive and provocative, decrying violent protesters “spewing their venom,” opposition demagogues causing “disunity,” and the evils of social media.
The Khmer Times fabricated these letters in an apparent campaign to manipulate public opinion, by deceiving its readers about what other members of the community were really saying about Cambodia’s most important political issues of the day. This scheme demonstrated a blatant disregard for journalistic ethics, which are based on telling readers the truth about what is happening around them, rather than trying to hoodwink them. The fact that Mr. Mohan actually thought his clumsy campaign of deceit would work is a profound insult to the intelligence of the Khmer Times’ readers.