The Council of Ministers on Sunday chastised the press for publishing information from a leaked government document that revealed the government has begun an investigation into the real estate holdings of recently removed military chief General Ke Kim Yan.
The publishing of information contained in the official minutes of a meeting of the Council of Ministers held on Jan 23—one day after Ke Kim Yan’s ouster—amounted to “incitement and provocation of a bad political environment,” the council said in a statement Sunday.
The statement adds that the “government is investigating to find the people who leaked the government’s internal documents and will take strict measures against these individuals.”
The minutes, which found their way into the hands of several media outlets late last week, revealed that the government removed Ke Kim Yan from his post as RCAF commander in chief in part because of his land dealings. The minutes also state that the Ministry of Land Management, RCAF High Command, Phnom Penh City Hall and other relevant government bodies were to investigate the legality of land owned in the capital and at least three provinces by a company affiliated with Ke Kim Yan.
Previously, CPP and military officials had said the former commander was removed only to promote unspecified reforms within the military. A man answering Ke Kim Yan’s phone Sunday said the general was not available.
In their Sunday statement, the Council of Ministers did not deny any of the information contained in the meeting minutes, but did clarify that the document had not been provided to the public by the government.
It goes on to say that the publishing of details from the minutes, “displays an obstacle to the government’s commitment and will for administrative reform, especially military reform.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan on Sunday emphasized the illegality of the document being leaked to the public.
“The document is solely the government’s property,” he said. “It cannot be distributed until it is authorized by competent authorities. It is illegal.”
He added that by publishing the contents of the government document, the press had compromised national security.
“It affects the security of the nation,” he said, explaining that some news reports had used the document as a way to claim that there is a conflict raging between Prime Minister Hun Sen and CPP President Chea Sim.
“It hurts Ke Kim Yan’s feelings,” he added. “He hasn’t gone through court yet; he is still innocent.”
Phay Siphan said the government would summon journalists to the Council of Ministers and explain to them how the government handles confidential materials and under what circumstances they can be used in the media.
“A few newspapers will be invited to discuss this for the government’s interest,” he said. “There will be no punishment; we still regard newspapers as our partners. We want them to know the source of information for classified documents: They must seek permission from the Ministry of Information and the Council of Ministers.”
“This is not pressure against freedom of expression,” he said.
Information Ministry Secretary of State Mao Ayuth referred all questions to Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who was traveling Sunday and could not be reached.
According to copies of the minutes, the document had already been circulated outside the government proper, with all National Assembly and Senate lawmakers receiving copies, even those in the political opposition.
Under the 1993 Press Law, news outlets are not permitted to request or disseminate information that affects national security. But prominent local attorney Liv Sovanna, who has handled a number of high-profile press law and defamation cases, said that portion of the law is not applicable in this instance, in part because it is about a man who no longer heads the military.
“It is not affecting national security,” he said. “There is no crime in publishing this.”
He added that even if a document is confidential, once acquired by the press, the media has every right to make use of it so long as it doesn’t violate specific provisions of the press law.
Also on Sunday, rumors swirled that Ke Kim Yan had been detained by military police, but RCAF Commander in Chief Pol Saroeun and national military police chief Sao Sokha both said they wereunaware of any such arrest.
“I don’t know about that; I am not involved,” Sao Sokha said.