Cambodia information minister tells state spokespeople to work with independent media

Khieu Kanahrith says journalists should not be treated as enemies.
2022.03.25
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Journalists stand outside the entrance to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital where former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, died in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept. 2, 2020.
AFP

Cambodia’s information minister has told government press officers not to discriminate against members of the media, saying that they need to give comments on a timely basis, though independent reporters contend that the spokespeople refuse to respond when asked tough questions.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanahrith told officials at a workshop on Tuesday to step up their communication with journalists and not treat them as enemies, but rather cooperate and provide comments so the press can report accurate information.

He also said government spokespersons who work for state institutes must disseminate information regularly to avoid the publication of fake news.

“Spokesmen must respond in a timely manner in order to disseminate the information widely to the public and people at the grassroots level,” said Khieu Kanahrith, who has served in his current position since July 2004.

The veteran politician previous held the lower rank of secretary of state of the Information Ministry from 1994 to 2004, though it was widely acknowledged that he was the most powerful figure in the ministry. He also served as a member of parliament for Kandal and Kampong Cham provinces and Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Since September 2018, he has again served as an MP from Kampong Cham.

Though Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with a charter proclaiming it a liberal, multiparty democracy, the government of autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party have weakened the independent media, along with political opponents and civil society groups, to remain in power.

Media professionals, including former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, faced false charges in the run-up to the country’s 2018 general election as part of a government crackdown. Independent news outlets and radio stations were banned, while journalists at other news organizations were purged.

Independent journalists say that government spokespeople welcome only positive and easy questions from the reporters while ignoring tough questions.

Freelancer Min Pov told RFA on Thursday that some government officials don’t share information with independent reporters and at times have resorted to suing the journalists.

He said that it is difficult to get responses from spokespeople when he writes investigative pieces, especially when it involves something negative about the government of Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for more than 35 years.

“So far, there are only a few government officials who talk to us,” Min Pov said. “When they do, it means that they are giving information to the public.”

They ‘don’t take phone calls’

Nop Vy, founder and executive director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance (Cambo-JA), the first independent membership-based network of journalists and media professionals in the country, told RFA on Thursday that government press officers are biased giving pro-government reporters easy access, while ignoring independent media.

He urged government spokespeople to cooperate and provide information to all reporters to ensure that society is fully informed about their government.

“So far, some ministry spokesmen have refused to talk or they don’t respond or don’t take phone calls,” Nop Vy said. “They are spokesmen, but they choose not to speak with reporters about sensitive information involving the government.”

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin refuses to speak with reporters and only posts comments on his personal Facebook account.

Hun Manet, the son of Hun Sen and a prime minister candidate in the 2023 general elections, said at a recent public gathering that he doesn’t speak with reporters over the phone and asked that they not waste minutes on their cell phones by trying to reach him.

Khieu Sopheak and National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun have refused to talk to RFA reporters, saying that the U.S. government-funded news organization is biased. RFA closed its bureau in Cambodia in 2017 amid a crackdown on media and civil society.

RFA could not reach Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn for comment on Thursday, but government spokesman Phay Siphan said training is being provided to communications officials to ensure they cooperate with reporters in a timely fashion.

The government also is drafting a law to promote open access to information, he said.

“We are creating a mechanism,” Phay Siphan said. “So far, we have been doing press conferences from the commune level to the ministries and have been responding to matters that people want to know about.”

Journalists in Cambodia also face harassment from other authorities, including police, while doing their jobs.

The Cambodian Center for Independent Media and the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia in February condemned the intimidation and threat of arrest of a foreign journalist reporting on labor strike activities in Phnom Penh, saying it was the latest documented violation of press freedom in Cambodia.

“When authorities arbitrarily use their power and infringe on the freedom of the press, society suffers from a lack of freely available news and information,” the groups said in a statement issued Feb. 10. “We call for an end to any such arbitrary abuse of power, as well as harassment and threats against our colleagues. We call for independent investigations into any such violations.”

Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 144 out of 180 countries in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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