Information Minister Khieu Kanharith on Sunday denounced an article by a prize-winning US journalist regarding events surrounding a recent fatal traffic accident allegedly involving a nephew of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The article, by former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Joel Brinkley, was published this weekend by several major newspapers in the US and drew a comparison between the authorities’ handling of the crash, in which a man was killed, and the country’s culture of impunity.
“It’s no secret that Cambodia is thoroughly corrupt,” the article reads. “As an indirect result, the rich and the powerful can commit, well, murder and face few if any consequences.”
Brinkley’s article referred to a local newspaper report that Hun Sen’s nephew, Hun Chea, paid $4,000 compensation following the accident that resulted in the death of a man earlier this month but faces no other consequences.
The article referred to reports that traffic police avoided the crash scene at first, but then military police arrived at the site and while consoling the premier’s nephew also removed the license plates from his car.
At his news conference Sunday morning, which was later broadcast on national television, Khieu Kanharith accused Brinkley of being unprofessional and insulting to Cambodia in his article, in which the minister was also quoted.
“He destroyed his Pulitzer Prize here,” Khieu Kanharith said.
Khieu Kanharith said the car accident—which he did not confirm or deny involved Hun Chea—was a private matter and was not related to the government, politics or impunity, while the paying of compensation was perfectly legal and not an example of well-connected people getting away with offenses.
The minister also said he didn’t know much about the events surrounding the accident, but he explained the removal of the car’s license plates—in general terms—as a normal practice.
“I told [Brinkley], in Cambodia when a car crashes and kills somebody, they remove the plates because it will be difficult to sell [the car otherwise],” Khieu Kanharith told the press conference.
Paying compensation is perfectly legal in Cambodia and not a sign of impunity, Khieu Kanharith said.
“Overseas you cannot just pay compensation, but you face a criminal charge. In Cambodia, there is no such law,” he said, adding, “[Brinkley] thought that because in his country if Hun Chea did not receive punishment, it would be an example of impunity.”
Khieu Kanharith then alleged that Brinkley, who has been a journalist for more than three decades—27 years of them at The New York Times—and is currently a journalism professor at the prestigious Stanford University, was motivated to write a negative article because he was “angry when government officials did not meet him.”
Brinkley, who arrived in Phnom Penh about two weeks ago, stood by his article Sunday.
“I have a fair understanding of what it takes to be a professional journalist,” he said by telephone.
Brinkley added that he had only ever asked Khieu Kanharith to help arrange some interviews for him for a story about Cambodia for Foreign Affairs magazine.
“I told him that I wanted more than anything to write a fair article, but it would be hard if no one would speak to me to present their side of the debate,” he said, adding that he will publish more articles from his current trip to Cambodia.
Hun Chea could not be reached for comment Sunday, while his father, Hun San, denied all links between his son and the recent car crash.
“My son did not have any accident,” Hun San, who is the prime minister’s eldest brother, said by telephone.
Phnom Penh municipal police chief Touch Naruth said he could not speak to a reporter Sunday because he was overseas, but he had denied earlier this month that Hun Chea had been involved in the accident.
Municipal traffic police chief Tim Prasoer said earlier this month that he didn’t know anything about the accident, while Daun Penh military police chief Thong Piseth confirmed that his officers had responded to the accident but denied allegations of removing the car’s license plates or consoling the driver.