The Interior Ministry on Friday said it would investigate a story about child prostitution in Phnom Penh that reappeared last week on CNN, a day after a government-friendly journalists’ union criticized the U.S. network for recycling a “fake news” story that could have a negative impact on Cambodia’s international reputation.
The ministry’s investigation would center on Agape International Missions (AIM), a Christian anti-human trafficking NGO that provided information for the CNN report, said Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state with the Interior Ministry and vice chair of the national committee to combat human trafficking.
“We just want them to clarify because what CNN broadcasted, it already happened in 2007. They broadcast it every year,” Ms. Bun Eng said.
“We are going to gather all the information and send it back to CNN because what they’ve done, it manipulates the truth and it affects the country’s reputation,” she said. “It is not a small issue.”
CNN has run numerous stories on Svay Pak, a commune in Russei Keo district that was a notorious hub for child prostitution until a crackdown in the mid-2000s.
In a 2013 CNN film “Every Day in Cambodia,” actress Mira Sorvino accompanied AIM founder Don Brewster around Svay Pak to meet girls who had been sold into the sex trade, sometimes by their parents. The documentary was then aired on numerous occasions in 2015 after it picked up an award.
Last Monday, CNN ran a story with the headline “Life after trafficking: The Cambodian girls sold for sex by their mothers,” in which a reporter returned to interview women featured in the 2013 film. Although the story is about the women’s progress, it begins by repeating the girls’ abuse years ago.
In reaction, Huy Vannak, director of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia—who is also a member of the ruling CPP and an undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry—criticized what the group described as “fake news” being peddled by CNN.
“I saw CNN broadcasted the short documentary many times and headlines have been changed,” Mr. Vannak wrote in the statement on Thursday. “I notice that there are mistakes…in interpretation that may affect Cambodia’s reputation around the world.”
Contacted on Sunday, Mr. Vannak, the head of news for Cambodian Television Network and its sister station Cambodian News Channel, took issue with the headline of the story for claiming that the girls were Cambodian and with a story highlight calling Svay Pak a persistent “hot spot” for child trafficking. The women in an accompanying video speak both Khmer and Vietnamese.
“They cannot make the general view that Cambodian mothers still sell their girls for sex; it’s not fair,” he said.
On Tuesday CNN removed “Cambodian” from the headline.
But the story and video both describe Svay Pak as a former epicenter of child trafficking. The story also points out that the problem has subsided considerably and that most of the community’s residents are undocumented Vietnamese migrants.
Mr. Brewster and his director of investigations, Eric Meldrum, could not be reached. Mr. Meldrum did not respond to an email requesting comment.
CNN also has not replied to requests for comment, though Mr. Vannak said the network had received the union’s letter and replied that it would discuss the concerns. Neither Ms. Bun Eng nor the head of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, Pol Phithey, could be reached on Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)
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