Anticorruption Unit Chairman Om Yentieng confiscated the voice recorders of several journalists following a press conference yesterday after being questioned about US Federal Bureau of Investigation disclosures of records from a probe into the deadly 1997 grenade attack in Phnom Penh.
Following the incident, a government official said that officials have the right to confiscate tape recorders if they feel their privacy is threatened or if asked off-topic or inappropriate questions.
Mr Yentieng became visibly angry after a reporter asked his question on the FBI records, which have been printed in The Cambodia Daily, and ordered one of his assistants to confiscate the voice recorders of reporters from several news media organizations.
“Take his tape. He recorded me without my permission,” Mr Yentieng said after a press conference at the Anticorruption Unit headquarters in Phnom Penh, which was held to brief reporters on the recent arrests of several anti-drug officials on corruption charges. “The FBI closed it [the case] already, but you keep writing.”
Prior to the questions regarding the FBI records Mr Yentieng had taken questions from journalists, who were holding voice recorders.
Deputy Seang Borath acted on Mr Yentieng’s order and took the voice recorders from several other journalists standing nearby.
The FBI was legally required to report to lawmakers on their findings in an investigation of the March 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally, which killed 16 people and wounded more than 100, including an American man.
In 1999, the FBI came to Mr Yentieng’s personal residence to administer polygraph examinations on the two people who had confessed to involvement in the attack. This drew expressions of outrage from the US Congress and human rights workers who suspected the CPP had forced the pair to change their stories.
FBI records indicate that US officials were highly skeptical of the pair and doubted their accounts. But American investigators did suspect that “CPP operatives” were responsible for the attack, according to official records. Mr Yentieng was angered Friday when asked about this.
Cambodian officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have strenuously denied all accusations that they were responsible. But since The Daily in 2009 began publishing information from the records, Cambodian officials had remained largely silent on the matter.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said government officials have a right to confiscate tapes to protect their privacy and dignity.
“Sometimes it creates trouble,” he said of reporters’ questions. “And [officials] have the right [to confiscate tapes] because of the privacy rights.”
“They have a right to protect dignity,” he added.
Though he was unfamiliar with this particular instance, he said that reporters should in some cases not digress from the subject of the press conference when asking questions.
“They have to respect the issue and [ask] appropriate questions and not the insulting questions,” he said.
The press, he added, also have rights and can sue in instances where their rights have been violated.
“It’s rule of law, you have to protect yourself by law,” he said. “They have the right to confiscate the tape. They have the right to that. You have the right to protect your rights.”
Moeun Chhean Narriddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media, said that confiscating a reporter’s material is illegal and amounts to censorship.
“It certainly violates the press law and the Cambodia constitution article 31 and 41, which guarantee press freedom,” he said. “Taking the tape or confiscating a camera, or any working materials from a journalist is not any different from imposing censorship which is illegal under the press law.”
He also said that government officials must understand that the questions of a journalist are not meant to be rude, but to represent the public’s right to have answers about the society in which they live.
“As journalists we have the duty to ask aggressive questions to get the real answer from the officials. We cannot always ask polite questions, because polite question will just get polite answers, not the real story we wan to get.”