Despite receiving invitations to a business seminar in Phnom Penh that was jointly organized by the Australian and New Zealand governments yesterday, reporters deemed not to be working for a “chosen media organization” were ejected from the event.
The event organizers representing the Australian government’s Australian Trade Commission and its New Zealand counterpart, the New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, said outside the seminar that exclusive rights were granted to an Australian-owned newspaper who had sponsored the event entitled ‘Developing Cambodia 2010.’
Invitations to the seminar were sent to several journalists by Maurine Lam, regional commissioner for Austrade, and Karlene Davis, her New Zealand counterpart. The invitations were then followed up with telephone requests to confirm attendance.
“We hope you can join us at both the seminar and the networking function,” the invitation said. “We look forward to your participation at Developing Cambodia 2010 Seminar.”
While journalists were allowed into the seminar’s opening speeches yesterday morning, around one dozen local and foreign reporters were promptly told to leave by Austrade representatives.
Ny Mora, business development manager for the law firm DFDL Mekong, who said she was representing Austrade, told a reporter he must leave the seminar as he did not work for the event’s “chosen media organization.”
In a text message received later, Ms Mora wrote: “Decision of media exclusivity right[s] is not that of DFDL, this is decided by the delegation only.”
Fiona Cochaud, first secretary at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, said later that she was unaware that any member of the media had been prevented from attending the seminar.
“I am very surprised to hear it. It is news to me,” Ms Cochaud said. “I am not aware of this particular situation so I’m not going to comment on it since I wasn’t there and I am not aware of what happened.”
“My understanding is that all journalists were able to come in,” she added.
Ms Cochaud later wrote in a text message: “No exclusivity arrangement as far as I am aware. You may wish to attend networking function for seminar @ intercontinental at 1700-1900 tonight.”
As the afternoon session of the seminar was to start yesterday, Leigh Anderson, a manager at Odyssey Resources Limited, an Australian accountancy and management consultancy firm who was also representing Austrade, constantly blocked two Cambodia Daily reporters from entering the seminar room.
“It’s a preferred press arrangement,” she said. “Phnom Penh Post are sponsoring the event.”
Ms Anderson said: “It’s not fair on the government agenda. One the timing, and two not knowing who is in the room, they are very conscious of that as well.”
When asked who had given instructions to bar reporters from the event she said: “I’m not going to discuss that because we’re running an international event. There’s three government’s involved.”
Ms Anderson even took on a threatening stance during her conversation with a reporter.
“You’re a marked man now,” Ms Anderson said at one point outside the conference room. It was unclear what exactly she meant by this.
Speaking outside the seminar room, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Economy and Finance Hang Chuon Naron, said he was not aware that journalists were barred from the event.
“You can come in and listen,” he told a Cambodia Daily reporter.
Neither Austrade commissioner Ms Lam, who sent the invitation to attend the seminar, nor her New Zealand counterpart, Karlene Davis, could be reached for comment on the press ban.
An Chan Thla, a reporter for the local magazine Economics Today, who was among the reporters invited to attend then ejected from the seminar, said that he was “disappointed” with the organizers.
“What I expected to get was not attainable,” he said. “It disappointed me.”
Also told to leave yesterday’s conference was Ek Tha, former Reuters correspondent and currently spokesman for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the office of the Council of Ministers.
“In terms of the freedom of press and expression we should have been allowed to cover such a media event,” Mr Tha said.
“Media plays a vital role to inform national and international investors. This is something the media should have been allowed to cover,” he added.
“This action is discrimination against journalists,” said Pen Samithy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists. “If New Zealand and Australia want to give exclusivity they should have told journalists,” he said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director for the Cambodia Institute of Media Studies, said banning the media from the event violated both the Cambodian Constitution and the Cambodian Press Law.
“It is a violation of press freedom and every journalist is equal,” Mr Nariddh said.
The Phnom Penh Post, which was a sponsor of the seminar and was granted exclusive access, according to the Austrade representatives, is owned by Post Media Limited whose director and major shareholder is Australian miner and extractive industries tycoon Bill Clough. Mr Clough is also CEO of Australian mining firm Twinza Oil, which is currently carrying out activities in Burma’s oil and gas industry.
“Twinza Oil’s project will provide the military regime [in Burma] with an estimated US$2.5 billion,” the human rights group Burma Campaign Australia said in a statement earlier this month. Mr Clough also has an investment in Burmese pro-government newspaper The Myanmar Times, which is described as the sister publication of the Post. Burma is also known as Myanmar.
Australia does not prohibit Australian companies from dealing with the military junta.
Steven Higgins, CEO of ANZ Bank and chairman of the Australian Business Association in Cambodia, declined to comment on the restricted press access to the event as he did not know about it.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” he said. “The reality is this is very much an Austrade event. They are responsible for all those events.”