The high-ranking government officials and global clothing brand representatives who took part in a meeting in Phnom Penh on Wednesday both raised concerns about the media coverage of last month’s lethal repression of a nationwide strike by garment workers and its aftermath.
The meeting was called after a group of international brands who source garments from factories in Cambodia requested talks concerning the lethal and violent repression of the strike that saw five workers shot dead by military police wielding AK-47s and more than 20 people jailed.
The topic of media representations of the repression was raised by Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol, who told the meeting —which included representatives of H&M, Gap and Puma—that the government was at the mercy of media portrayals of its repression of the strike.
“When the opposition says something, and you’re not in the country, you read the newspaper and say: ‘Oh wow, that’s unbelievable, how can the government do that? Oh my god, that’s our people, our blood, our flesh and blood, we need to take care of them,’” Mr. Chanthol said, before explaining that order had been restored in the interest of the nation.
“Either you’re opposition or not, but you’re a Cambodian at the end of the day. I’m doing everything I can…to make it easy for you to make businesses in Cambodia to make better jobs for our people.”
The brand representatives also raised the issue of news coverage of the government’s armed repression of the strike and questioned whether it was presenting a full picture of the situation.
“More often than not, [the media] doesn’t present a situation in a context or fully balanced, so it’s important we’re able to come to Cambodia and hear directly from you,” said a representative of Gap.
A representative of H&M, which has sourced clothes from Cambodia since 1998 and is the world’s second-largest clothing retailer, said that the reports detailing the repression and the incarceration of 21 strikers beaten and arrested last month were also not good for his company.
A campaign to publicize the plight of Cambodian garment makers who have been jailed or shot for protesting for a $160 basic monthly wage, the H&M representative said, had aroused a strong emotional reaction for many people “outside these doors and outside the country.”
“I recognize they may not fully understand the context, but I think it would be remiss of me not to say that this is something that is observed throughout the world in the media,” the representative said.
“We need to go back to our customers, back to the global media, and let them know we are aligned and we are going to approach these situations in a non-violent manner,” the representative of Gap added.
Sok Siphana, a prominent government adviser, said the media in Cambodia had a habit of creating problems between the public and private sectors, which he suggested might otherwise work together more easily.
“In between the two extremes [of public and private], you have a wildcard, which is the media,” he told the brand representatives.
Mr. Siphana has his own business show on SEA TV and regularly appears as a political analyst on the Cambodian News Channel.
“Unfortunately, it’s a globalized world, and Facebook and Twitter and everything is not helping,” he said. “I can tell you, as a lawyer, these Cambodian media, if they were in Singapore they would be sued and broke and financially ruined already—I mean if they were in Singapore.”
“In Cambodia, there is so much freedom it is unbelievable, so we are all a victim of this fourth power. They’re worse than the unions, by the way. At least the unions work and have constituencies,” he explained.
Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon compared media coverage of U.S. President Barack Obama to that of last month’s strike repression.
“When President Obama delivered a speech in the U.N., they cleared the road,” Mr. Chhon said. “For the policeman—I watched it on TV—they could shoot. So the law is the law. The security of the president of the United States is sacrosanct, so people have to respect that.”
“Here…private property has to be respected, so we are protecting the Constitution and other laws related to the respect of ownership.”
Sok Chenda Sophea, the secretary-general of Council for the Development of Cambodia, a government body charged with promoting investment in the private sector, warned the brand representatives not to inadvertently promote further negative press by talking about the meeting.
“Although you have expressed your concerns [today]…more positively, I think, let’s give it back to you, the owners of this forum, to say no—you came to discuss and to engage the government,” he said.
Mr. Chhon used his closing speech to encourage the clothing brands and government to speak more openly and effectively with the media to ameliorate any further negative coverage of their endeavors.
“In a globalized world, we have to take care about communications,” he said. “This is one of the big problems in Cambodia.”
“We work a lot but we communicate too little.”