Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday threatened legal action against The Cambodia Daily for having “distorted” his remarks from a speech on Tuesday, also telling the newspaper’s journalists that he would prefer they no longer wrote articles about his speeches.
Mr. Hun Sen’s government has in the past month executed a blitzkrieg against its critics, jailing an opposition lawmaker, four rights monitors and a senior elections official, as well as charging a U.N. official and suing a prominent political analyst for defamation.
Speaking at a university graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh on Thursday, the premier said he had grown tired of reading headlines on articles about his speeches, which he said were often far different from his intended message.
“There was an abuse of my words, which I did not say. I think these people are here. Let them listen clearly; if you don’t hear it clearly, replay it, record it, and do not write in an improvised way” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“Yesterday, The Cambodia Daily published and the headline was far different. It’d be better now that you don’t publish [my speeches], frankly speaking,” he said, honing in on Wednesday’s front-page article headlined: “Prime Minister Bans Color-Coordinated Demonstrations.”
“All the television stations broadcasted [the speech], and you distorted it,” he said, also complaining about the effects of the distortion. “The foreigners don’t understand Khmer, they read the English articles.”
“Now I will check for legal paths, if you dare to publish incorrectly about me,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “It’d be better that you don’t speak about me. Pretend to hate, pretend not to have Hun Sen. That’s better.”
Mr. Hun Sen, who has been in power for 31 years, makes much of the country’s laws through de-facto decrees issued during his frequent speeches, which are always broadcast nationwide on radio and television.
After eight people were arrested on Monday morning protesting in black in a campaign dubbed “Black Monday,” Mr. Hun Sen—long wary of Eastern European-style “color revolutions”—said on Tuesday that he told Interior Minister Sar Kheng not to allow any color-coordinated protests.
“It does not matter what color you are—I told Sar Kheng and the other leaders not to care about the color—if you commit a wrong, arrest them all,” Mr. Hun Sen said, also at a university graduation.
“Please don’t use the right to expression to abuse others, because the government must keep peace and stability for the country for development.”
In a letter-to-the-editor on Wednesday, Svay Sitha, the head of the Council of Minister’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit (PQRU), also claimed that the headline “PM Bans Color-Coordinated Demonstrations” was a distortion of Mr. Hun Sen’s message.
“Such a headline clearly shows an intention to confuse and incite national and international public opinion to misunderstand the speech by…Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” he wrote.
“That The Cambodia Daily writes such a headline and publishes it in distorted fashion, contrary to the truth, tramples on the journalistic profession and could be an instigation to stoke the people’s anger inside and outside of the country to act against the very correct leadership of the Royal Government.”
PQRU spokesman Tith Sothea could not be reached to clarify how the headline had distorted Mr. Hun Sen’s speech. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak refused to say whether people protesting together in a uniform color had not in fact been banned.
“I think it is a provocation,” General Sopheak said of color-coordinated protests, before declining to comment specifically on their legality.
“It’s a provocation activity. A very short answer. That’s all I can say,” he added before hanging up.
Mr. Hun Sen’s remarks Tuesday came on the back of similarly fearful comments from Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan and Gen. Sopheak, who both likened the peaceful protesters to revolutionaries intent on bringing down the state.
“Like you know, their group broadcasted to incite the people to wear black for Monday to release officials,” General Sopheak said after the protests on Monday, calling demonstrators “drunk with human rights.”
“They went crazy with freedom of expression. They did not think they are under the law that controls them,” he said. “Do you want it like Syria? Do you want it like Libya?”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, too, speaking after Mr. Hun Sen’s speech on Tuesday, defended the repression of the black-clad activists as necessary to to avert a “disaster for the nation.”
“From the experiences from Middle East and North Africa, we have seen there have been color revolutions that occurred, and it made whole nations fall into internal war,” Mr. Eysan said on Tuesday. “We need to be careful.”
Whatever the status of the ban on monochrome protests, Moeun Chhean Nariddh, head of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said it would be unwise for Mr. Hun Sen to take legal action against a newspaper when other channels exist for such grievances.
“Unlike the general public, which does not have sufficient means to respond to a negative media report, politicians have the means to clarify stories by sending letters to the editor or holding press conferences,” Mr. Chhean Nariddh said.
“There is plenty of room for them to correct and clarify, and to include the information not included in the first report. But by reacting negatively or too strongly to a report, it could even make the situation worse.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday. However, in a message on Tuesday, Mr. Kanharith said he sometimes had to convince government officials to leave the press alone.
“My message to the authority and government is very clear: Do Not Kill the Messenger,” he said.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said on Thursday that the embassy was aware of Mr. Hun Sen’s threats of legal action and was monitoring the case.
“The U.S. Embassy is aware of these reports and is watching the situation closely,” Mr. Raman said.
“The U.S. government strongly supports freedom of expression in all its forms, including through the media. A robust, free press is critical to sustained economic, political, and social development,” he said.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said that if Mr. Hun Sen took legal action over the article it would only be the government’s latest effort to suppress freedom of expression in the country as elections approach.
“If anyone has been misquoted by any media outlet they should just ask for a correction to be published,” said Mr. Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile in France to avoid jail sentence over a defamation conviction.
“No need to sue or threaten to sue any newspaper, especially in a country like Cambodia where the judiciary is not independent and ‘defamation’ still a crime, thus leaving room for the government to crackdown on the press and to further restrict freedom of expression.”
Ou Virak, a political analyst who heads the Future Forum think tank and appeared in court on Thursday for a defamation case brought by the CPP, said Mr. Hun Sen’s threats on Thursday were indeed aimed at curbing free expression before elections in 2017 and 2018.
“Like I have said before, election season is coming a little bit early. It’s still in relation to that, but the bigger picture is that the CPP is always looking for ways to hold on to power,” Mr. Virak said.
“Putting critics and independent people, including the media, on the back foot has worked in the past, and now they’re looking how to push forward with censorship and to make people keep quiet.”
Mr. Virak said amid all the different legal cases against rights monitors, U.N. officials, elections officials and opposition lawmakers, it was no longer unthinkable that the CPP would go after English-language newspapers.
“A suit against you could no longer be considered beyond reasonable or beyond possible,” he said.
“That used to be the case, but not anymore.”
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