UK Ambassador, ‘Killing Fields’ Producer, Defend Comments

Bill Longhurst, the U.K.’s ambassador to Cambodia, and David Puttnam, who produced the 1984 film “The Killing Fields,” on Thursday both hit back at criticism that Mr. Puttnam has received for remarks he made during a trip to the country last week where he praised the CPP government and chided journalists.

At a luncheon hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce in Phnom Penh on March 6, Mr. Puttnam, who now serves as the U.K.’s trade envoy to Cambodia, praised the government’s efforts to end corruption and warned journalists not to “just become another arm of the opposition.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere…where I have received such an absolute answer from government on the issues of stopping and stamping out corruption,” he said at the end of the luncheon.

“I find the commitment and determination here to confine it and root it out is very real. Now, in five year’s time I might be found to be a complete fool, but I don’t think I will be, I really don’t think I will be,” he said.

Mr. Puttnam’s comments about journalists were prompted when a reporter asked why Prime Minister Hun Sen had canceled a meeting with him the day prior.

A visibly irked Mr. Puttnam said Mr. Hun Sen had been sick and that the prime minister had sent a “very, very, very profound apology.”

The reporter was then asked by event organizers to withhold further questions until a press conference after the lunch. However, Mr. Puttnam, who was subsequently asked by a businessman to speak about his “Killing Fields” film, redirected his attention back to the reporter.

“The challenge [for the media] is that you have to decide what your role is. Is it to inflame or inform?” he said.

At the luncheon, Mr. Puttnam had declined to comment on how the July 1997 overthrow of First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh by forces loyal to Mr. Hun Sen or the shooting deaths of five protesting garment factory strikers by military police in January had colored his views of the government.

“I’m in no more position to comment than I am to comment on what happened in Kunming last week,” said Mr. Puttnam, referring to a stabbing attack in China in which 33 people were killed and 143 were injured.

“I cannot comment on things 6,000 to 7,000 miles away.”

Two days later, James Pringle, a veteran Reuters journalist who covered the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, juxtaposed Mr. Puttnam’s remarks with a lengthy exposition on human rights abuses in Cambodia and the record of governance of what he terms “one of the world’s most egregious kleptocratic states.”

Mr. Puttnam’s remarks, along with the criticism by Mr. Pringle, were then reported by BBC News and The Daily Mail this week.

In a letter to Mr. Pringle dated Wednesday and posted Thursday on the Facebook page of the British Embassy in Phnom Penh, Mr. Puttnam responded to Mr. Pringle.

In the letter, Mr. Puttnam focuses primarily on Mr. Pringle’s criticism that “The Killing Fields” producer had not been supportive enough of Rithy Panh’s Oscar bid, which he describes as Mr. Pringle’s “most upsetting error.”

Also in an opinion piece published Thursday, Ambassador Longhurst defended Mr. Puttnam’s remarks cited in Mr. Pringle’s piece, which he said were based on “misleadingly selective” speech extracts.

“Now, everyone can have their own legitimate viewpoint about how likely it is these words [on corruption] will be turned into deeds. And those who have been here a long time might reasonably point out that we have heard such promises before,” the British ambassador wrote of the remarks.

“Equally, Lord Puttnam is perfectly entitled to take a more optimistic view based on the individuals he met, especially as he caveated this with the observation that he may well be proved wrong in a few years’ time.”

“As for ‘lambasting’ local journalists, I really struggle to understand where this came from,” Mr. Longhurst added in his piece published Thursday.

“I seriously doubt that the reporter concerned is so delicate that he thinks he was being lambasted when Lord Puttnam simply posed the question as to whether the role of the media is to inflame or inform, and cautioned against being perceived as an arm of the opposition.”

Ten journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1994, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Local human rights group Licadho puts the number of slain journalists at 11.

No one has ever been held to account for those murders.

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