Less than 24 hours after the Information Ministry issued a final warning to media organizations that have refused to refer to Prime Minister Hun Sen and select officials as “Samdech,” the premier announced on Friday that he had overruled the directive.
Journalists were first ordered to refer to Mr. Hun Sen by the royally bestowed honorific—which translates roughly as “The Greatest”—in December. A follow-up directive instructing media organizations to begin using the title by July 1 went mostly unheeded, and the ministry issued a final warning on Thursday, with an official adding that insubordinate outlets could see their licenses revoked.
But amid heavy online criticism, Mr. Hun Sen took to Facebook on Friday to announce that the title was not necessary after all.
“Regarding the use of titles of leaders of the Royal Government, journalists are not required to write the titles exactly, if journalists do not want to use them,” the prime minister wrote in a message on his page.
“But please…comply with the code of ethics and use reliable sources to avoid disseminating untrue information,” he added.
Reached later on Friday, government spokesman Phay Siphan said Mr. Hun Sen’s had simply decided to countermand the Information Ministry.
“Well, the prime minister decided he didn’t support the ministry. The prime minister objected to it,” he said. “He said that he will give the choice to the reporters. He overruled on that one.”
Although Mr. Siphan said the directive was originally the ministry’s idea — and not the prime minister’s — Ouk Kimseng, an undersecretary of state at the ministry, said he did not know who first proposed it.
“I don’t know where it came from,” he said.
Contacted for comment about Mr. Hun Sen’s announcement, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said in a message that it was “just a big release for my ministry,” declining to elaborate.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said the decision to scrap the directive was likely made in response to the online criticism.
“I think it’s probably because of the popular feeling of the public, as well as the journalist community themselves, for not wanting to use this title,” he said.
Mr. Chhean Nariddh also applauded Cambodia’s three English-language newspapers, as well as broadcasters Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, for refusing to cow to the Information Ministry.
“I think it has been a test of press freedom and freedom of expression by asking the media to use the title. For the media themselves, they have been good because they have been pushing the limits of their freedom,” he said.
“I think it is also because the media represents a large number of the general public opinion, so putting pressure on the media is like putting pressure on the public themselves.”