Prime Minister Hun Sen and a spokesman for the ruling party yesterday joined a chorus of government officials attacking the veracity of an article published by The Post on Monday stating that Germany had cancelled preferential visa treatment for private travel by certain high-ranking Cambodian officials.

The sustained broadside – which continued even after The Post made available, in full, official German government documents confirming its reporting – seemingly stemmed from a misunderstanding of the article’s content. In attacking the story, officials have repeatedly mischaracterised the facts contained therein, and a representative of a source quoted by a Ministry of Interior official as refuting the piece yesterday acknowledged the assessment was “based on a flawed understanding of the content of the article”.

In fact, the decision does not ban the issuance of tourist visas for officials, but does cancel expedited access to them. The initial story was based on official German documents from a parliamentary inquiry into actions taken against the Cambodian government after the dissolution of the opposition party. Responding to lawmakers’ questions, the German government said in the document that it had cancelled expedited access to tourist visas for senior Cambodian officials.

The document states: “Bilaterally, the Federal Government has withdrawn the alleviations and preferential treatments for the issuing of visa for private travels by government members, including by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family, by high-ranking military officials and the president of the highest Cambodian court. It advocated for similar measures of partners in the EU-group.”

It goes on to note that Germany had also cancelled and indefinitely postponed a scheduled visit from Interior Minister Sar Kheng, and had received “several” delegations representing the now-dissolved opposition.

Left: Front page of the response to a German parliamentary request signed by Walter J Lindner, German Secretary of State; Right: Passage highlighting the withdrawal of preferential treatment for the issuing of visa for private travels by high-ranking government officials, stating (highlighted passage): Does the Federal Government, with regards to the increasing state repression of press and political opposition, advocate within the EU for targeted sanctions against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, his family, and the politically responsible leaders of the country, and to what extent does it advocate amongst European Partners for such measures (please specify measure and group of persons)? Government response: Bilaterally, the Federal Government has withdrawn the alleviation and preferential treatments for the issuing of visas for private travel by government members, including by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family, by high-ranking military officials and the president of the highest Cambodian court. It advocated for similar measures of partners in the EU-group.”

Click to see the full document (German language)

Since the initial story’s publication, Cambodian officials have strenuously denied that they had been barred from official travel to Germany, or from obtaining tourist visas outright – neither of which is mentioned in the story or the German document.

In a speech to garment workers yesterday, Hun Sen took aim at the article, while also seemingly mischaracterising its content.

“I don’t know where Phnom Penh Post gets its information from,” he said. “What does it mean? It means if we go to Germany as tourists, they won’t allow us, but if we go on a meeting, we would be able to join.”

“What is the benefit for going there?” Hun Sen asked. “We haven’t visited all places in [this] country yet. Do I need to go to visit other countries? I don’t have enough time even to visit you [workers].”

Meanwhile, Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan criticised The Post in a WhatsApp group for almost 100 members of the media, saying the article reflected poor journalistic ethics.

“Writing this article seems like having bad intentions to twist the public to make confusion. It shows clearly that this writer wants Germany to suspend the visa like what she said,” he wrote, after which he challenged the professionalism of this reporter. “If it’s like this, she is not a journalist. She is a politician.”

Reached yesterday, he reiterated his criticism, insisting that Germany had not yet decided on whether or not it would take action.

“Where did she receive the information?” he asked, despite the German government documents, with English translation of the paragraph in question, having been published by The Post alongside a follow-up story yesterday morning.

“At the end of the story it says there is an EU [European Union] meeting on the 26th . . . Therefore the thing has not happened yet,” Eysan added.

That European Council meeting will decide on potential steps to be taken to address the political situation in Cambodia, but it is unrelated to the visa measures already taken by the German government.

Eysan added that he did believe there was “a document”, but that this did not specify suspensions of preferential visa treatment. However, the documented response to the parliamentary inquiry from Germany’s Foreign Affairs Department clearly states that cancelling preferential visa treatment for private travel has already been decided upon.

Eysan and the premier’s criticism of the article follow similar allegations from Interior Minister Sar Kheng and spokesperson Khieu Sopheak earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Sopheak posted into another group chat for journalists the Khmer translation of an email purportedly from German businessman Gunther Mull saying that the article was entirely false and “fabricated by the opposition”.

However, Ingwar Grüneisen, legal counsel at Mull’s company, Dermalog, said late on Tuesday that claims the article was wrong were based on a misunderstanding, though he did not clarify whether the misunderstanding originated with Mull or with Cambodian officials. The article, he said, had been misinterpreted as saying the measures also applied to official travel, which they do not.

The incorrect assertions in Mull’s email that the article was inaccurate “were based on a flawed understanding of the content”, Grüneisen wrote.

A copy of the original email from Mull, obtained by The Post, also contains a paragraph that was not included by Sopheak, and appears to corroborate the original reporting. It indicates that Cambodian government officials may soon no longer receive preferential visa treatment for private travel not only to Germany, but also to the more than 20 other member states of Europe’s Schengen area.

The German Foreign Affairs Department declined to comment yesterday, saying it “does not comment on reactions by other states with regards to measures taken by the Federal Government”, and adding that the department and the German Embassy were “in regular contact with the Cambodian government”.

Huy Vannak, director of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia and an Interior Ministry official, said yesterday at the launch of an NGO report on press freedom that The Post had not done anything wrong, saying the government was reacting to “save face”.

“The news was leaked, but when we look into the official website of the German Embassy in Phnom Penh, it was not there,” he said.

“No matter whether Germany released the news or not, it affects the face of Cambodia. The ministry must give an explanation, not criticise [The Post], but confirm that it did not happen . . . For me, The Phnom Penh Post has no fault because they have their sources, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the one responsible for visa affairs, must show up and protect its government.”

Additional reporting by Mech Dara, Rinith Taing and Ben Sokhean