A day after a dozen reporters were told to leave a business seminar in Phnom Penh organized by the Australian and New Zealand governments, Australian embassy and trade officials failed to explain why reporters were ejected early on from the all-day event.
At Wednesday’s “Developing Cambodia 2010” seminar, two representatives from Austrade told reporters that they had to leave because they were not the “chosen media organization,” which was an Australian-owned newspaper that had financially sponsored the business and government get-together in Phnom Penh.
Cambodian government officials at the seminar said they were unaware that the Australian trade body had restricted reporting on the event to one newspaper.
Defending the expulsion of Cambodian and foreign reporters, Leigh Anderson, a manager at Australian consultancy firm Odyssey Resources Limited, who was representing Austrade, described the seminar as an event sponsored by the Phnom Penh Post.
Ny Mora, business development manager for the law firm DFDL Mekong, the other Austrade representative, who previously worked in public relations for Post Media, said the decision to restrict access was “decided by the delegation.”
The Australian Trade Commission, however, maintained yesterday that members of the media were not restricted in attending the seminar.
“Austrade held a media conference at the Developing Cambodia event, which was open to all media,” Australian Trade Commission spokesperson Purnima Ganapathy wrote in an email yesterday. “All attending journalists were provided an opportunity to meet participating agencies, seminar speakers and guests at the opening event.”
Invitations to the seminar were sent to several journalists by Maurine Lam, regional commissioner for Austrade, and Karlene Davis, her New Zealand counterpart. The invitations were then followed up with telephone requests to confirm attendance.
“We hope you can join us at both the seminar and the networking function,” the invitation said. “We look forward to your participation at Developing Cambodia 2010 Seminar.”
Ms Ganapathy sidestepped a written question that asked why reporters belonging to media organizations beyond the Phnom Penh Post were barred from gaining access.
“The Australian Government is a long time supporter of freedom of the press in nations around the world. Austrade welcomes the opportunity to work with all media on events and other initiatives of this kind in [the] future,” she said.
“Austrade welcomes media participation at all suitable Austrade events. Where the discussions are commercially sensitive in nature, Austrade would take into consideration the concerns of business participants and organize closed sessions as is common practice,” Ms Ganapathy added.
Fiona Cochaud, first secretary at the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh, said yesterday that the Australian government had not played any role in organizing exclusive media rights for any organization at Wednesday’s event.
“The Australian Embassy did not arrange any media ‘exclusivity’ for yesterday’s [Wednesday] event,” Ms Cochaud wrote in an email message.
Asked about the importance of supporting an independent and free media in events held in Cambodia, she said: “The importance of upholding an independent and free media in Cambodia has no bearing on the issue at hand.”
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute of Media Studies said yesterday that in a democratic country, news events should have open access to all media outlets.
“Freedom of expression has a focus on the freedom of ideas,” Mr Nariddh said. “Secondly transparency is a central issue, so everything should be free and open.”
“I am very sorry that they [the Australian and New Zealand governments] learn bad lessons from Cambodia,” Mr Nariddh added. “This action would never have happened in Australia.”
Government spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said that the granting of exclusivity to media organizations was not against the Press Law if the organization is among the event’s organizers.
“If they [Phnom Penh Post] sponsored and prepared the event…they can close the door and prohibit [access],” Mr Kanharith said.