Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith on the CPP's press strategy,
the state of Cambodia's media and plans to translate John Grisham into
Former journalist and current Minister of Information and spokesman for the Cambodian People's Party, Khieu Kanharith, in his office at the ministry late last year.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, 57, is one of Prime Minister Hun Sen's closest confidants. The two have been close for almost 30 years and have experienced hardship and success together. As the official "voice" of Cambodia for the past seven years, Khieu Kanharith has become something of a rarity - a government leader who is both respected and liked by the journalism community, perhaps not surprising given he's a former journalist himself and therefore knows what it's like to be on both sides of an interview. An affable, hard-working polyglot, he remains a family man who still enjoys an occasional night out with journalist friends.
How do you rate the media in Cambodia these days?
You know, I became a newspaper editor when I was only 28 years old, and I stayed in the job more than 20 years. I still write occasional articles and news items, and I've been at the ministry more than 15 years, so I know the official side of things as well.... I read all the newspapers every day and watch all the TV channels, so I think I'm a reasonable judge. And I can say without a doubt there has been a tremendous improvement. We now have a young, educated and motivated media or journalism community. It includes more than 400 newspapers and magazines, and 18 journalists' associations. Of course, we have bad journalists as well as good ones, but overall I am satisfied.
Do you get upset at journalists who are inaccurate or who criticise you unfairly?
No, I don't. I think it's better to let them write whatever they like. If they are wrong, talk to them afterwards and explain that they have made a mistake - that's better than suing them. Personally, if I see something wrong, I contact one of the journalists' associations and let them speak to the reporter. I never contact the journalist directly because I don't want to seem to be interfering and I want to maintain my rapport with them. It doesn't matter if they are from an opposition or a pro-government newspaper; they know they can come and see me and feel relaxed. They call me "Bong" and from time to time we have a social get-together. I tell them that out of office hours, I am not a minister. I'm just like them. I'm a friend of the press.
Not all of your fellow ministers are so friendly.
Sure, I agree. That's because we've never had a free press in Cambodia until quite recently, So they're not used to being criticised in print. But they're getting better. If you look at the bigger picture, Cambodia has only recently embraced a free-market system and is integrating with the international community. A free press is an important part of that process because without it you cannot fight against large-scale corruption and abuse of power.To achieve true democracy, we need a civil society, a multiparty system and a strong and free press. I think we're getting there faster than many people expected.
Be honest, it's still not so free. You restrict information if it's to your advantage. Before last year's elections, you stopped releasing the figures for inflation - which was over 30 percent - so that the government would not look so bad.
The weak point of some members of this government is that they feel uneasy with journalists.
Yes, sure. But that was not my decision. Every political party must have some tricks. Myself, I prefer to keep journalists fully informed. The weak point of some members of this government is that they feel uneasy with journalists and don't know whether to trust them. I tell them it's their job to give out correct information, but of course journalists are human beings and they can make mistakes even when they get the right information.
Former US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said the media were biased in favour of the CPP in last year's elections and that the opposition did not get a fair share of coverage.
He's wrong. The anti-government viewpoint always gets plenty of coverage in the press. The local radio stations don't cover politics much, but Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America are very critical. As for the television stations, yes, I agree, they are mostly pro-government. But even then, the state broadcasting stations are not allowed to talk about political parties. If Hun Sen attends a party meeting, we are not allowed to cover it on national TV. Of course, if he goes as prime minister, we cover it. But if people are wearing the party logo, we cannot show that. So I think we are pretty balanced. We broadcast the National Assembly debates where the opposition speaks out and we never cut them. I think the US ambassador got it wrong because he did not read the Khmer-language newspapers or listen to Khmer radio.
Why are you so tolerant, when your Asean neighbours like Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, Brunei and Myanmar rigourously censor and prosecute that kind of reporting?
They view the press with great caution and control it very tightly. When I met a Singapore delegation, they told me how their ministers, even the prime minister, sue the newspapers. They said I'm too soft with journalists. But in Cambodia, we take a much more relaxed and democratic attitude. Even a foreigner can own a newspaper here. You don't even need a Cambodian partner. That's not possible in most Asian countries, even those that claim to have a free press. One of the reasons we did it is because foreigners help our own journalists develop their technical and professional abilities. And it helps foster the openness of Cambodian society because people now feel they can say things they used to think were forbidden.
But, did you have problems saying "forbidden" things when you were an editor?
In fact, I did. I was once demoted because I criticised Hun Sen and called for a multiparty system in Cambodia, which I've always believed in. But in 1990 not many others openly said that and people in the party said we cannot do it. I insisted that it was unavoidable, so the party took action against me. Luckily, I was only demoted - others were jailed. Actually, at the time, I was pretty sure I was also going to be jailed. And when I was called in by [the National Assembly President] Chea Sim's office, I thought: ‘Ok, now it's my turn.' So I took two big books with me. One was Shogun and the other was The Black Ninja. I chose them because they were very thick and I figured they'd last me in jail. But Chea Sim just talked to me for about three hours and then said I was going to be ok and there was no need to be scared. After that chapter of my life, I decided to translate Shogun into Khmer, and it took me about five years because I didn't have time to do it full time and I just spent one or two hours on it at a time. I'd like to do more translation, perhaps a book by John Grisham, a mystery story.
How does Hun Sen react to press criticism these days?
Oh, he doesn't get upset. He's used to it now. Out of every 10 stories about him, you can be sure half are full of mistakes and he could sue for defamation. But he takes it calmly and regards it as part of being a leader in a democratic society. Of course, it irritates him. That's why, after breakfast, he only reads two or three newspapers now. At midday, he'll read translated articles from the international press.
He's been PM more than 20 years. Surely that's not healthy in a democracy?
If he makes mistakes he could be removed, but right now he's still a good leader for us. If you look at people in the opposition like [Prince Norodom] Ranariddh and [Sam] Rainsy, it's clear he is the best. That's why we never listens to the others. But Hun Sen never lords it over us. When we consider future plans, he always listens to what everyone has to say. And he never shows favouritism. I am very close to him, but he never asks me alone for my views. He always asks two or three others to get some balance before he makes a decision. And he can be very bold, like when he realised we had to negotiate with Sihanouk if we wanted to end the war. He did that, despite many people in the party being opposed to it.
You still hang out with him a lot?
Not really; that's because I don't play golf. If you play golf, you have to go with him all the time, and I don't like it. He plays golf with many of my secretaries of state and many of my friends. Not me, I like archery. I'm the president of the Cambodian Archery Federation.
Cambodia is developing well, it has a free press, multiparty elections and so on, yet there is still an impression in the outside world that it is a backward, lawless, dictatorial place. Is the media to blame for that image?
Yes, partly it is. Many journalists come here with preformed ideas and they try to find things that support those ideas. One international journalist said to me: ‘If I don't get to meet this minister, I will write a negative article about Cambodia.' I said nothing. They come here for two or three days and try to preach to us about everything. That's not nice and not professional. They always say ‘impoverished' when they refer to Cambodia, but we are not impoverished anymore. We are not like many African countries or North Korea. In fact, when I go to Manila and some other places in the region, I notice they are much worse than Cambodia.
Which papers do you read?
I start at 4am when I read the foreign press online. I read The Washington Post, the AP news service, Newsweek and some others like The Nation and The Bangkok Post from Thailand. And I check the Sam Rainsy Party's website. At 6 am, I watch the French news channel. And then I read all the local press. I'm lucky that I just need four hours sleep at night.
interview by Roger Mitton