Cambodian princess and Fresno State alumna Soma Norodom visited the Henry Madden Library Thursday to discuss the importance of freedom of expression and her experience as a columnist in Cambodia, a country known to violate that freedom.
Norodom obtained her bachelor’s degree in telecommunications in 1993 with an emphasis in news and public affairs and continued her education through the mass communication master’s program.
Norodom came to the U.S. with her family in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist group, seized control of Cambodia. After the Khmer Rouge fell out of power in the1990s, Norodom’s father, Prince Norodom Vatvani, returned to Cambodia to help rebuild the country.
From 1993 to 1997, Vatvani served as commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Air Force alongside his cousin, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was elected prime minister.
After Ranariddh won the 1993 election monitored by the United Nations, Hun Sen—the current prime minister of Cambodia and leader of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—refused to step down from his position as prime minister which he was elected to in 1985. Sen negotiated an agreement with the government to remain co-prime minister with Ranariddh.
In 1997, Sen staged a coup against Ranariddh and the Funcinpec Party, a royalist political party, in order to take the entire position.
“They run the country,” Princess Norodom said. “They write the law. They break the law. They do whatever.”
Sen and the CPP won the country’s general election again on July 28, giving him five more years of power. The opposition party claimed the election was rigged, throwing the country into a state of instability.
When her father went back to his homeland, Norodom stayed in the U.S. and built up her career as a media professional. In 2008, she became a sports commentator and the director of marketing for the all-female TV sports talk show “Ladies in the Locker Room.” She also appeared in the TV drama “Atlanta Homicide” as a regular cast member in addition to many other writing, marketing and public relations jobs.
However, in June 2010, Norodom’s father became ill, and she moved back to Phnom Penh to take care of him. Shortly after moving back to Cambodia, Norodom established the first educational English-speaking talk show, Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC) Radio Talk Show, where she interviewed more than 180 people, including government officials, business leaders, educators and entertainment professionals. It became the No. 1 radio show in six provinces across Cambodia, including Phnom Penh.
In June 2012, Norodom began writing a column for the Phnom Penh Post, commenting on the country’s corruption and social issues. Her weekly column titled, “Royal Rebel, The Social Agenda with Princess Soma Norodom,” became the No. 1 most-read section in the newspaper.
“The Cambodian media is one-sided,” she said. “Cambodian journalists are bribed. People pay them to write stories. They take money, which is a no-no as a journalist. They write whatever, because it’s controlled by the government. So, I go against it.”
On Oct. 29, 2012, the Cambodian government accused Norodom of incitement because of an article she wrote, titled “We Should Be United,” that discussed “the future of the country’s royal institution,” in the face of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s death.
In the article, Norodom said that she “witnessed that unity was weak among the royal family members and a division within the current government” during the time of Sihanouk’s death. The purpose of the article, she said, was literally lost in translation. She said the people of Cambodia don’t understand the difference between a columnist and a traditional journalist.
“When you read it in Cambodian, it’s so powerful because no one talks about stuff like that,” she said. “It’s tough when you’re in a country and they say you have freedom of expression, freedom of press, but you really don’t because people like us got in trouble. People like us went to jail. People like us got killed.”
After she was accused of incitement, Norodom said she was escorted to an undisclosed location and watched. During that time, she continued to write her column.
“I could have been shot,” she said. “Every day, I walked out of my place at risk to lose my life. My family heard all this crazy news, and they couldn’t even call me because the phone would have been tapped. It was crazy.”
Norodom said, if it were necessary, the U.S. Embassy would protect her since she is a U.S. citizen.
Norodom said many people encouraged her to lie and retract her column.
“You have all these people against you, and what do you do? Do you just say, ‘OK, I give. OK, you’re right, I lied. OK, let’s retract the column,’” she asked. “That’s what they wanted me to do, but as a journalist, do you do that for your life?”
Right now, Norodom describes herself as the minority. By leaving her column up, Norodom said she hopes other journalists in Cambodia will follow her example and gain the courage to speak out until the country reaches a democratic state.
“I only did it because I have experience from the U.S., and I knew what was right and wrong,” she said. “But also, I just felt I needed to help the people, and sometimes you have to die for your cause—believe me, you think about stuff like that. ‘Am I going to die for this cause?’”
Norodom said she feels obligated to report the truth, but communicating the truth in a country where freedom of expression is limited can come at a high risk.
“They already killed a reporter last year; they put a radio owner in jail for eight months; and then there’s me,” she said. “I feel as if I’m safe, but I’m not sure, you know, because I didn’t go to jail, I didn’t get killed and they didn’t deport me.”
In addition to her work as a media professional, Norodom is also an active volunteer for many charity organizations. Some of those organizations include the Toys for Tots Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Norodom is also an ambassador for Happy Tree Orphanage, a social service organization in Cambodia that aims to help children affected by HIV or AIDS.
The department of mass communication and journalism brought Norodom to the campus and hosted the event.
Betsy Hays, an MCJ professor, said Fresno State doesn’t always have the opportunity to bring “international stars” to campus. Norodom’s visit, she said, provided students with a rare opportunity to hear firsthand about various issues regarding the media in Cambodia.
Hays said she is a “big fan” of Norodom’s advocacy work in Cambodia.
“I think that she is just a fireball and has the most beautiful attitude about life,” Hays said. “She really wants to do good work and do good for the people of Cambodia to move their institutions forward. I think she’s got an amazing amount of courage, and I think she’s doing some really interesting things.”
Norodom said she felt it was important for her to come back and give her time and experience back to students.
Norodom said the personal relationships she made with professors greatly helped her career.
“My professors not only were my professors, they were my mentors, but they were also my friends,” she said. “The professors are the ones who are here to help you, and that’s what makes Fresno State a really good university.”
Those professors, she said, have followed her career and care about what she does to this day.
Norodom said she would like to give a special thanks to Lanny Larson, John Wallace, James Wilson and Betsy Hays for making her visit possible, being role models and following her career.
“They are my mentors, of course, and I’ve always looked up to them,” she said. “For them to ask me to come is a big honor.”