The Information Ministry will in July start reviewing the operating licenses of media outlets that fail to abide by a recent order that they refer to Prime Minister Hun Sen by his royally bestowed title of “samdech,” a ministry official said on Sunday.
The ministry called journalists to a meeting last week to remind them of a request it made in December that they start referring to Mr. Hun Sen as “samdech,” a title bestowed on him by the king that translates roughly to “the greatest.”
On Thursday, Phos Sovan, the ministry’s director of information and broadcasting, said the government would not renew the licenses of local media organizations that failed to heed the instructions whenever their licenses expired.
Yesterday, Undersecretary of State Ouk Kimseng, who ran last week’s meeting with journalists, said “action” could come sooner than that.
Mr. Kimseng said the Information Ministry would give media outlets until the end of June to start affixing the royal title to Mr. Hun Sen’s name.
“The ministry will be thinking about it from now on to the end of June, then the ministry will take action like I said in the meeting,” he said. Asked if “action” meant reviewing the licenses of wayward outlets, Mr. Kimseng said, “Yes.”
The undersecretary did give journalists some leeway, though.
He said they could keep Mr. Hun Sen’s full title—Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo, or “The Greatest Commander in Chief and Powerful”—to the more manageable “Samdech Prime Minister.”
“In my opinion it is not wrong…. I think we often use ‘Samdech Prime Minister,” he said. “You can write what you think is logical and following our advice.”
Mr. Kimseng said the government had the authority to enforce the title’s use courtesy of the royal decree that granted it.
“It is because this title was granted by a royal decree from the king,” he said.
When pressed on what laws granted the government the power to review or revoke a media outlet’s license for failing to use a royal title, Mr. Kimseng spoke of vague “agreements.”
“We base it on the agreement between us and the TV station or any media organization, so they will respect the advice of the ministry or authority,” he said.
“If our instruction violates the law, you can say it is wrong. But our advice is based on the laws of the Kingdom of Cambodia. You should know that,” he added.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, who runs the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said there was no legal basis for revoking or not renewing a license over the use of such titles.
“The government does not have any right to revoke a newspaper license unless the newspaper has committed a serious criminal offense,” he said.
“The Press Law does not say anything about calling a public official by the title,” he added. “Under the law, we don’t really need to call him samdech.”
The government says the title is a matter of respecting Cambodian customs.
The 1995 Press Law includes provisions about respecting Cambodian customs, but Mr. Chhean Nariddh said including royal titles in those rules was going too far. The specific article focuses on curse words and sexual content and penalizes violators with a fine, not a shutdown.
“As a democratic society with a free press, the press should be allowed to choose [a title] unless it seriously hurts the dignity of the official,” he said. “I don’t think that not calling the official samdech qualifies as serious injury of the dignity.”
The ministry’s new rules come amid the government’s increasingly truculent posture toward the country’s independent media.
In the past few weeks, a CPP spokesman has sued a political analyst for defamation over his comments to Radio Free Asia about the government’s investigation of an opposition leader’s sex scandal, and Mr. Hun Sen has threatened legal action against The Cambodia Daily over a headline on an article about one of his speeches, which he said misrepresented his remarks.