Prime Minister Hun Sen used a news conference at Thursday’s World Economic Forum on Asean in Phnom Penh to warn that two foreign-owned news outlets, including The Cambodia Daily, were “against” the government and that journalists who did not report “properly” would be seen as “servants of foreigners.”
During a 37-minute media briefing with the premier on the second day of the international business summit, Mr. Hun Sen described Radio Free Asia (RFA) as “a radio against the government,” and said The Cambodia Daily was “opposing me all the time,” according to a live English translation of the prime minister’s statements.
Pointing a finger at two journalists in the front row of the media group, Mr. Hun Sen said, “Now the two…who work for Radio Free Asia and Cambodia Daily, now write it properly because it is a live broadcast.”
The journalists had asked the prime minister questions about how the nation’s youth would be trained for the jobs of the future and how Cambodia would participate in China’s “One Road, One Belt” economic policy.
“So if you write it wrongly, make a wrong commentary, then it will be seen that you, niece and nephew who are working for foreigners, are actually the servants of foreigners. I don’t want to hear such a word,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
Tripti Lahiri, Asia bureau chief for website Quartz, part of Washington-based Atlantic Media, and who attended the press conference, said she was surprised by the exchange.
“The prime minister spent the bulk of his answer criticizing the outlets the reporters worked for, instead of responding to two reasonable questions,” Ms. Lahiri said.
Last month, RFA’s deputy director for Cambodia, Huot Vuthy, fled the country before a scheduled court date over allegations that he falsely identified himself as a CNRP assistant during a prison visit with opposition officials. He denies the accusations.
RFA’s spokesman Rohit Mahajan said in response to the prime minister’s comments that they “illustrate what poor regard Cambodia’s government has for independent, free press.” RFA is funded by the U.S. government.
Douglas Steele, The Daily’s general manager, citing the newspaper’s motto, said, “We are not for or against any person or party. Our mission is unbiased news, without fear or favor.”
In concluding the briefing, Adrian Monck, the forum’s head of public and social engagement, said critical news outlets were a key component of economic growth.
“I think one of the key findings from the forum’s Global Competitiveness Report is that healthy, critical media is an important part of any growing economy,” Mr. Monck told the room of journalists.
“The World Economic Forum’s own global rankings show that accountability and scrutiny help economies become more competitive,” he added in an email later on Thursday. “Media plays an important role as a stakeholder in that process.”
The forum supported that role by inviting more than 200 reporters to the summit and “asking leaders to face their questions on the record,” he said.
“It is for viewers and readers to decide if the answers provided address their concerns sufficiently,” Mr. Monck said.
During the briefing at the forum, Mr. Hun Sen also brought up his Wednesday gift of $20,000 to ailing Cambodia Daily associate editor Saing Soenthrith to “save him.”
“He’s been writing for [The] Cambodia [Daily] cursing me for almost 20 years, at the time getting ill and he’s been abandoned by The Cambodia Daily,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
Mr. Soenthrith said on Thursday that he stopped working last May due to illness, needs a kidney transplant and receives dialysis twice weekly. He said he took a $1,000 monthly pay cut before being put on unpaid leave.
“My name is still on the masthead,” Mr. Soenthrith said, adding that he felt “abandoned” by The Daily’s management. He said former and current Daily reporters had donated money and raised funds to help pay for medical expenses.
Asked why he thought Mr. Hun Sen had given him the money, he said he was unsure.
“I don’t know his idea, but when he learned about my background, he pitied me,” Mr. Soenthrith said. “And he supported me.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith has pledged an additional $5,000 to Mr. Soenthrith, which the journalist said he was told he would receive today.
Despite his criticism of the outlets, Mr. Hun Sen told the reporters at the forum that their questions pleased him. In response to a question from RFA journalist San Sel about how Cambodia was working to educate its youth for jobs of the future, Mr. Hun Sen cited the careers of the two Cambodian reporters who had asked him questions as examples of educational opportunities available for the nation’s youth.
Following years of war, “we have been emerging, including grandparents, and your parents can survive and provide you training. Now you can work for American radio and an American newspaper,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“Is it not a life example of the achievement that the Royal Government has been doing for you?” he said.