It was an absolute joy to have the chance to help run a workshop in Cambodia, a country that after years of turmoil is trying to get a free and credible press off the ground.
Over a dozen local journalists took part in the two-day Economic and Financial news workshop in the capital, Phnom Penh. The sessions were organised by the International Monetary Fund, the Washington, DC-based global lender. Their goal was to help build skills and knowledge about economic and financial reporting in one of south-east Asia's fastest-growing economies, which saw a decade of double-digit growth through 2008, according to the World Bank.
The country however is still recovering from a traumatic political meltdown in the late 1970s that saw more than a fifth of the population, according to UNICEF, die under the Khmer Rouge regime – which targeted intellectuals such as journalists with particular attention. Reporters Sans Frontieres, a Paris, France-based NGO that evaluates the treatment of journalists worldwide, announced while we were running the course that it had pulled Cambodia's rank down 26 places to the 143rd worst country – out of the 179 the organisation ranked -- for press freedom in its 2013 report. To their credit however, the Cambodian authorities allowed our workshop.
Considering the challenges faced by the local press, there was no shortage of intelligent and even humorous questions from the Khmer journalists assembled in the workshop, which Melanie Cheary and I facilitated.
"What happens if you're doing a story where one of your sources is a prostitute, and she asks to be paid?" asked one journalist, during the ethics discussion where we were setting out the need to gain knowledge and information without payment, as according to the Reuters Trust Principles a journalist should never pay a source.
This and so many other questions and valuable discussions came up during the course. We started with a workshop on basic macro-economics and followed this with sessions on the role and importance of financial journalists in developing an economy, as well as markets including bonds and currencies.
The ratio of women in attendance was low - three participants. But despite initially being quiet – partly possibly intimidated by a perceived lack of English language skills – at the start of the course, by the end of the second day they were proudly speaking for themselves in discussions.
Another of the highlights was when the attendees were split into two teams - one playing a rich country and one a poor and dissolute one, which was seeking aid from its rich cousin. This is clearly reminiscent of Europe, where several countries including Greece and Cyprus have recently had to get aid from richer ones like Germany, with help from the IMF.
We then had the idea to invite our IMF contacts to step in, and each to advise one of the groups.
Our students really got the opportunity to learn from the horse's mouth.