Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday joined Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan in justifying a hard line against the press by invoking US President Donald Trump’s anti-media stance as an example.
The remarks, which stopped short of Siphan’s calls to shutter outlets deemed problematic, nonetheless seemed to suggest that a free press was tantamount to “anarchy”, and suggested the right to a free press – enshrined in the Kingdom’s Constitution – could not come at the expense of “stability”.
“We respect rights, but not the rights of anarchy, [but rather] the rights of the rule of law. I hope our foreign friends understand this. Now, in the United Sates itself, CNN and some others could not get into the White House because Donald Trump sees them as causing anarchy,” Hun Sen said during a speech in Phnom Penh commemorating National Clean City Day.
Hun Sen’s comments referred to the White House’s controversial decision to exclude certain media outlets, including CNN and the New York Times, from attending a meeting in press secretary Sean Spicer’s office on Thursday.
“They do not condemn Trump as a dictator. Ah! Or is it true, the United States has a dictator? Please make clear on this,” he added.
On Sunday, the Times did run an article on what experts and academics characterised as Trump’s embrace of authoritarian, Stalinist rhetoric in his labelling of the press as “the enemy of the people”.
As he often does, Hun Sen went on to refer to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, seeming to suggest that the abridgement of certain rights was warranted to prevent instability.
“Some just talk about rights but never talk about stability and peace. During Pol Pot’s regime, were there rights? If they were already dead, would they be able to write news?” he said.
In a quote in the Times’s story, Pol Pot biographer Philip Short appears to contradict Hun Sen’s assertion that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies created stability. “I don’t know if Trump has ever read Stalin, but if he wants to destabilise people, he is doing it perfectly,” Short said.
On Saturday, government spokesman Siphan had threatened to shut down any news sources that threaten peace and stability, specifically naming US government-funded “foreign agents” Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, as well as local outlet Voice of Democracy.
Yesterday, representatives from RFA and VOD said they would not be intimidated.
“At this time, I have nothing further to say except to reaffirm RFA’s commitment to bringing the Cambodian people credible, honest and independent journalism,” said RFA director of public affairs Rohit Mahajan.
Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodia Centre for Independent Media, which oversees VOD, said that far from promoting stability, the destruction of a free press can itself cause chaos.
“The government has a fear of the opinions of the people . . . they don’t want to see people with a space to express ideas,” he said, claiming VOD was one such space.
Teang said the comments should be taken seriously, because “in this country anything can happen that the government wants”, but vowed to stick to his principles of sound journalism.
Political analysts also expressed concern that Trump could be encouraging authoritarian leaders around the world, while undermining America’s position as a world leader.
London-based rights consultant Billy Tai said that while attacks on the media in Cambodia have often come in “sporadic bursts” without serious consequences, Trump may embolden Hun Sen to actually take action.
“In this case, Hun Sen has been able to leech on to Trump’s behaviours . . . and would feel like he now has the licence to behave the same way,” said Tai.
“I do find it difficult to reconcile the rhetoric from the US Embassy with regards to Cambodia’s democratic space given what’s going on back in their home turf,” Tai added.
Dr Paul Chambers, with the Institute of South East Asian Affairs, echoed Tai’s comments.
“Hun Sen and Phay Siphan are conveniently using the anti-media standpoint of Trump to try to justify quashing media freedoms in Cambodia, a ploy which cuts against the previous pro-human rights comments of the US embassy. Trump’s tactics are becoming the legitimizer of authoritarianism in Cambodia for Hun Sen,” Chambers said via email.
The US Embassy, meanwhile, cautioned that Trump’s ongoing feud with the media should not be construed as an American abandonment of the principle of a free press.
“The United States is not immune from tensions between elected officials and the media, but the freedom and independence of the press is firmly entrenched in our laws and culture,” said embassy spokesman Jay Raman.