The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has dismissed what it dubbed “fact distortion” in the reporting of local online media outlet VOD English, which translated and cited its mid-November press statement regarding measures to deal with low paddy prices in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces.

In a letter addressed to VOD English editors on November 30, which was also issued to several other local media outlets including The Post, the ministry took issue with their three articles published on November 17, 22 and 24 for “inaccurately” referencing the press statement with the phrase “refrain from criticising” and the words “threat” and “warn”, respectively.

The ministry denied that the phrase and terms were used in its November 15 statement, which explained the situation regarding low paddy prices and its efforts to solve the issue for the aforementioned provinces.

In its November 30 letter, the ministry clarified that it had sent two undersecretaries of state to inspect the situation on the ground in order to find appropriate solutions for farmers in the two provinces. It explained that November to mid-December is peak harvest season, most notably of the Pkha Rumduol varieties, when rice mills are the busiest and prices for the grain the lowest.

“The ministry wishes to appeal to social media users to ‘refrain from disseminating’ false information claiming that it ignores the issue and does not provide any solutions,” it said in reference to the actual phrase and terms used in the November 15 press release.

“Such false information only increases concerns among farmers whose paddy is not yet ready to harvest and may provoke a panic, causing them to rush to harvest their crops early, which will only further contribute to the lowering of the price of paddy,” the ministry added.

On November 16, the ministry began collaborating with Green Trade Company – a state owned enterprise under the Ministry of Commerce that operates rice mills and is a large-scale rice purchaser – to introduce standard minimum prices for paddy rice.

As a result, top-grade Pkha Rumduol paddy was priced at a minimum of 1,040 riel (around $0.25) per kg when purchased by Green Trade. Any farmer who was offered less than this price by a trader could turn to Green Trade as an alternate buyer, the ministry announced at the time.

Following the introduction of the measures, farmers in the two provinces generally expressed their approval for the policy and thanked the ministry and relevant authorities for these efforts to maintain an acceptable price on paddy.

However, instead of covering the ministry’s statement or actions, VOD’s November 17 article stated “The Ministry of Agriculture has asked farmers in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey to refrain from criticising the ministry for low crop prices”.

According to the ministry, in a subsequent November 22 article, VOD English used the “incorrect statement” about “refraining from criticism” in the November 17 article as background by saying: “Last week, the agriculture ministry made a similar threat to farmers who criticised the government over the market price of rice.”

Then in its November 24 article, VOD English rephrased the two previous statements. “The Ministry of Agriculture has warned farmers in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey to refrain from criticising the government.”

In another November 24 article, VOD English also said the Banteay Meanchey police had detained a civil servant in Svay Chek district who had criticised the government over the low rice prices.

The ministry clarified that the civil servant in Svay Chek district was in fact asked by the local authorities to explain the reasons behind “obscene insults” he had made publicly about the sitting district governor.

He later on resumed his duties in Svay Chek district after making a public apology and at no point was he arrested or detained.

“The ministry is disappointed by the lack of professionalism and ethics of VOD reporters who, as native Khmer speakers, should have understood the true meaning of the ministry’s press releases,” the November 30 letter read. “Secondly, they should have the capacity to translate accurately a simple statement by the ministry.”

The ministry said VOD reporters should have done proper fact checking as professional journalists to ensure the accuracy of their reporting before “recklessly” publishing the articles.

“The fact that the VOD sub-editors and editors involved have allowed such mistranslation to occur in the first place reflects the unprofessionalism, or perhaps malice, and politically-biased reporting towards [the ministry]”, read the letter.

The letter said the ministry has no intention of preventing anyone from expressing their views and perspectives about certain issues, nor has it made any threats to the public about the need for them to “refrain from criticising the government”.

“[The ministry] respects the freedom of expression and press freedoms, and promotes cooperation between the government and press institutions, which is vital for the country’s development,” the letter stated.

It also called on VOD to report the news with responsibility, based on facts, the truth and accurate information about Cambodia to its readers, especially to its international readership.

After receiving the ministry’s “Letter to VOD English Editor”, it wrote an article headlined “Agriculture Ministry Alleges VOD Distorted Statement for Political Agenda” in response instead of publishing the letter in its entirety.

“The Agriculture Ministry has accused VOD of ‘perhaps maliciously’ distorting a ministry press release, saying the publication could be perceived as having a ‘politically driven agenda’,” the VOD article said in its lead.

Asked for comment on the commentary on VOD’s articles by the ministry, Ith Sothoeuth, media director of CCIM – which oversees VOD – told The Post on December 1: “We’ve already published an article that covers what they [the ministry] want to say.”