Prime Minister Hun Sen made glowing overtures to government mouthpiece Fresh News yesterday, claiming it was a news service on par with 150-year-old stalwarts Reuters and the Associated Press.
The premier used a speech to garment workers at the Canadia Industrial Complex to highlight that students in Japan and Cambodians in Vientiane relied on Fresh News – which boasts 2 million Facebook followers – as their key source of information.
“Fresh News now is not only being watched in the country but also abroad, and we also have a quick information system that is no worse than AFP, UPI, AP or Reuters,” Hun Sen said, also referring to Agence France-Presse and United Press International, both about half a century old.
In recent weeks, Fresh News has published unsubstantiated and seemingly fantastical conspiracy theories pulled directly from anonymous Facebook pages that foreshadowed the expulsion of pro-democracy NGO National Democratic Institute and the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on treason charges.
The online outlet enjoys a cosy relationship with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, often getting first access to information and circulating government documents, as well as scoring rare exclusives with Hun Sen himself.
The prime ministerial accolades for the outlet, meanwhile, come in the wake of the recent government shutdown of the hard-hitting Cambodia Daily newspaper and over a dozen independent radio stations.
Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific head Daniel Bastard said “Fresh News cannot be compared to professional and independent press agencies” due to its obvious bias, which deprives its articles of credibility.
“Although Fresh News can deliver quick information, it cannot be seen as a reliable source of information, since it spreads unsubstantiated conspiracy theories,” he said via email.
“Fresh News recently published several articles accusing NGOs, journalists and members of the US Embassy of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. One journalist, Geoffrey Cain, was deemed a ‘foreign spy’, alongside [jailed filmmaker] James Ricketson. No evidence or credible source has been produced.”
Fresh News CEO Lim Cheavutha, however, welcomed Hun Sen’s praise with pride and defended publishing the conspiracies.
“Such articles have attracted huge interest from people, and it is not different from WikiLeaks, which leaked important documents of the USA, and big media in the world like CNN, BBC, Reuters, AP, etc,” he said. “Fresh News is an independent institution and does not have senior officials behind it, and the institution is not a mouthpiece for the government.”
Huy Vannak, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia – where Cheavutha is a deputy general secretary – said he was “sure” Fresh News verified the allegations before publishing them.
“To be honest, it is the role of authorities or court if there is a complaint or the need to verify” the identity of a Facebook user, he said, suggesting the routine journalistic procedure was in fact “beyond the scope” of a journalist.
Vannak said Cheavutha was “like a brother” to him, and while the premier made a point about the speed of pro-government Fresh News, it still needed to develop its content in order to be in the same ballpark as the international wire services.
Reuters did not respond to requests for comment by press time, but their Handbook for Journalists demands accurate and unbiased reporting.
“For a single source story, the informant must be an actual policymaker or participant involved in the action or negotiation with first-hand knowledge, or an official representative or spokesperson speaking on background. Such information should be subject to particular scrutiny to ensure we are not being manipulated,” it reads.