Cambodia's Trial of the Century, Televised





Like any pair of good TV news hosts, Neth Pheaktra and Ung Chan Sophea deftly play off each other, finishing each other's thoughts and building on each other's ideas. But unlike the playful banter of most local news shows, neither host ever cracks a joke, or even smiles. Instead, the two veteran Cambodian journalists look directly into the camera and talk to viewers every Monday at 1 p.m. about torture, murder and the law.

Neth Pheaktra and Ung Chan Sophea's 24-minute weekly show summarizing and analyzing the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as 'Duch,' the chief of the Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 interrogation facility also known as Tuol Sleng, has become a sleeper hit in Cambodia. With one in five Cambodians watching the show every week, Duch on Trial has become the main way many young Cambodians, who were not taught about the Khmer Rouge in school, learn about the historic Khmer Rouge tribunal unfolding in Phnom Penh — and, in a lot of cases, hear about this dark chapter of their country's history for the first time...

... Not surprisingly, testimonies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) have been grim since the trial started in February of this year. Duch, a mathematics teacher before joining the Khmer Rouge, admitted that his guards smashed babies against trees. One guard on the stand outlined the process of live blood-letting, and a rare survivor described the pain of having his toenails ripped out.

Despite the gruesome tales, Duch on Trial has attracted up to three million viewers a week in recent months — a whopping 20% of the country's population. The success of the show, which premiered in April, rests on its ability to decode the trial's complex proceedings to a mass audience — no small task in this largely rural, poorly educated country where only about 30% of students who enter school graduate from grade 9. The ECCC was established as a hybrid court after years of negotiation between the U.N. and the Cambodian government, and the result is a complex hodgepodge of international and domestic law...


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