Journalists in Ratanakkiri province said Wednesday they would defy a “request” from the provincial government to cease gathering in public places and taking photographs during their reporting.
About 30 reporters from various news organizations were on Tuesday called to the provincial office, where deputy governor Nhem Sam Oeun said locals had complained that their regular meetings at coffee shops and other places in Banlung City were “not a good look.”
Reporters contacted Wednesday said Mr. Sam Oeun had attempted to outlaw gatherings of journalists. However, the deputy governor said he had simply called them in to make a request and “understand each other.”
“It is not a serious ban, but it’s just that, to the people’s eyes, it looks improper,” Mr. Sam Oeun said of the journalists’ meetings. “We have just requested. In Banlung City, we see journalists gathering and it is not a good look.”
In recent months, Ratanakkiri has been in the news as the crossing point for dozens of Montagnards—an ethnic minority hill tribe from the central highlands of Vietnam—who say they have fled their home country due to religious and political persecution.
The Montagnards have posed a diplomatic problem for Phnom Penh, with Hanoi requesting their return as the U.N. has pushed for them to be assessed as asylum seekers. In April, an office manned by about 100 soldiers, police and military police was established along the border in Ratanakkiri to stop people from illegally crossing into Cambodia.
Ratanakkiri is also one of the country’s most active areas for illegal logging. Logging tycoon Try Pheap has offices, a casino and his own special economic zone in the province.
In September 2012, journalist Hang Serei Odom, who reported on forest crimes in the province for a little-known newspaper, was found murdered in the trunk of his car.
The deputy governor, however, would not comment on any link between his meeting with journalists and particular news events, saying only that reports coming out of the province were often inaccurate.
“Some media have no details when they broadcast their news,” Mr. Sam Oeun said. “In the past, we have seen that some journalists are far from journalists and they act like they are a police force.”
Tep Sothy, a reporter for SEA TV who was at Tuesday’s meeting, said that Mr. Sam Oeun had instructed them to refrain from chasing news stories for their own safety.
“Reporters gathering, chasing stories and shooting photographs of certain offenses would be dangerous for reporters,” Mr. Sothy recalled the deputy governor as saying.
However, the broadcast journalist said he believed the deputy governor’s concern was not for the journalists but for the people they investigate.
“I don’t think it was people’s opinions, it’s the opinions of businessmen who don’t want us to reveal their activities and impact their interests,” he said.
Uch Savuth, a reporter for the Nokorwat newspaper, said that journalists often gathered at one particular coffee shop in the city’s Boeng Kanseng commune, and that they would continue doing so despite the government’s “request.”
Kim Sovanrith, who works for CTV8, said that the regular meetings were an essential part of the job.
“We are reporters and we need to gather to exchange information with each other,” he said, adding that taking photographs, which the deputy governor stressed was particularly dangerous, was also an absolute necessity.
“If we do not chase to take photos, they accuse us of publishing false information when we broadcast our news,” he said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, called the request from the deputy governor “strange” and said that it was the first time he had heard of such a ban in Cambodia.
“It is a violation of these people’s rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, and of the freedom and rights of a journalist,” he said.
“It may be that there is something mysterious behind the authorities banning journalists from gathering.”