Ij reportika Logo

Cambodian prime minister’s son praises press freedom, despite father’s crackdown

The son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen defended press freedom at an event marking World Press Freedom Day in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, ignoring his father’s crackdown on journalists who have criticized his government.

Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, an army commander expected eventually to succeed his long-ruling father, glossed over increasing restrictions on press freedom and civil rights in the country Hun Sen has ruled since 1985.

“As Prime Minister Hun Sen stated in his statement, the royal government is committed to protect freedom of expression, press freedom and promote cooperation between the government and press institutions that is vital for the country’s development,” Hun Manet, 42, said as his father’s representative at the event, which was attended by more than 100 journalists, Cambodian news outlet VOD reported.

World Press Freedom Day was created by UNESCO in 1991 to highlight the importance a free press plays in society. This year’s theme, “Journalism Under Digital Siege,” is designed to spotlight how developments in monitoring and surveillance technologies affect journalism and freedom of expression.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based group, ranked Cambodia 142 out of 180 countries and territories in its 2022 World Press Freedom Index released Tuesday.

“Worried by the possibility that he might have to give up power after more than 30 years in office, Hun Sen went after the press mercilessly ahead of parliamentary elections in July 2018,” RSF said.

“Radio stations and newspapers were silenced, newsrooms purged, journalists prosecuted — leaving the independent media sector devastated. Since then, the few attempts to bring independent journalism back to life have drawn the wrath of ruling circles,” the annual report said.

But in his speech, Hun Manet insisted that his father’s government views the press as an ally in creating a better-functioning society.

The government has prioritized its policy on the press to allow its participation in fighting corruption and promoting democracy and respect for human rights to create a just society, peace and development, Hun Manet said.

“Of course, we have criticisms against the government that we’ve restricted press freedom,” he said. “The allegation is groundless and doesn’t reflect the truth. Cambodia has a pluralistic government that respects freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said at the event that the government was disappointed with reports criticizing the government. He claimed that NGOs that are not registered as news organizations produce the negative reports based on the wishes of their donors. But he didn’t provide evidence to support the claim.

Government pressure

Sun Narin, Voice of America’s reporter in Cambodia, told RFA on Tuesday that Hun Manet did not take questions at the event. He also said the press cannot write what they want, even though freedom of expression is enshrined in the country’s constitution.

“There are pressures from the government,” Sun Narin said. “I have observed that [journalists] are afraid of the government.”

He said that he and other journalists are advocating for a law that would make the government more transparent.

“We don’t have documents now,” he said. “It is difficult to get statistics. It is hard to find information.”

Hun Manet’s speech came a day after two dozen organizations, press associations, journalists and NGOs held a conference in Phnom Penh to discuss the deteriorating situation of press freedom in Cambodia.

Nop Vy, executive director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association, said the government must ensure that Cambodians get the information they need to make informed decisions in the country’s local elections on June 5.

“Receiving information is essential and getting real information is even more important to make improvements to the quality of life and to the democratic process that ensures the participation of the people,” he said.

“As Cambodia prepares for next month’s elections and the 2023 elections, the government should ensure that information flows to every citizen, and all the harassment against journalists must not continue.”

In Cambodia, journalists still face persecution, intimidation, violence, arrests and pretrial detention for their work, Nop Vy said.

Free press advocates want Cambodia’s government to end impunity for crimes against journalists, including physical assaults and murder, by bringing the perpetrators and accomplices to justice. They also want the country’s Information Ministry to reissue revoked media licenses and to expedite the passage of a Right to Information Act, they said.

Meas Sophorn, secretary of state and Information Ministry spokesman, said the government was committed to ensuring further protections for respecting freedoms of the press and expression.

Translated by Samean Yun and Sok Ry Sum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.