For Journalists Covering Asean Summit, A Touch of Kafka

There is a press room where live videos of Asean meetings are broadcast, but without sound. Thailand’s delegation says its spokesman is too busy to speak. Burma says it has no spokesman. Malaysia says sorry, but the press conference it just called is only for Malaysian media–welcome to the Asean Summit press pool.

Journalists may be a notoriously grumpy bunch, but the consensus among foreign and local reporters covering the summit is that access is especially dismal here in Phnom Penh, verging at times on the Kafkaesque.

“This time it’s a little bit difficult to find stories,” said Maskatsu Ishi, Jakarta bureau chief of Japanese wire service Jiji Press. Compared with last year’s Indonesian summit, reigned over by the notoriously media-friendly Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, the Cambodia summit currently in progress in Phnom Penh has proven a tough egg to crack.

“Well, in Indonesia, there was more access, yes, yes,” said Mr. Ishi with a laugh. “Yes, it was smoother run.”

Whether the information blockade is deliberate or the result of poor planning is up for debate, but the effect is clear. Journalists have been pushed bodily out of hallways or turned away as they approach the meeting area because they don’t have a pass that was never issued in the first place.

During the summit’s first meeting of leaders yesterday, it took half an hour of bargaining with Information Ministry officials before more than two dozen reporters covering the summit from around the world were allowed to be present in the adjacent hallway. By the time the reporters arrived, the leaders had left.

Over the course of the day, Twitter became a popular place to vent frustrations.

“Journalists covering #ASEAN summit in #Cambodia need 6 passes to access various areas,” wrote Stephen Coates, Hong Kong bureau chief for Agence France-Presse. After an especially vigorous booting from the snack table near a meeting room journalists had been blocked from, a reporter wrote: “World media eating sausage rolls outside ASEAN leaders’ meeting enrages officials; we all got kicked out.”

Ouk Kimseng, an Information Ministry adviser dispatched yesterday to deal with the increasingly cranky reporters, was apologetic but said the poor access was due to security issues and out of the Ministry’s hands.

“They seem to be schizophrenic,” said Stuart Grudgings, Reuters bureau chief for Malaysia. “There seems to be a lack of organization because we’re being allowed in sometimes and sometimes we’re not.”

In the meantime, the reporters continue to poke around, darting between the Council of Ministers building, where the media room is, and the Peace Palace next door; they continue to try and elude the security guards with their snaking earpieces; and they continue to gather en masse for that brief chance to shout out a question to Prime Minister Hun Sen…and have him walk on without a second look.

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