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Questions not on the menu

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Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks at a press dinner organised for local journalists at the Sokha Hotel on Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar peninsula on Saturday. Facebook

Questions not on the menu

Billed as a chance to share “discussions and questions” with Prime Minister Hun Sen, a lavish dinner for some of Cambodia’s press on Saturday instead saw journalists wined, dined and lectured on their profession.

Given that billing, and with elections fast approaching, some believed the event at the Sokha Hotel on Chroy Changvar would provide reporters a chance to quiz the country’s most powerful man, who for years has eschewed press conferences.

It was not to be.

Nevertheless, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, whose ministry organised Saturday’s soiree, described it as a “historic” gathering of 1,000 journalists, though many in the audience were government officials and spokespeople.

Attendees broke out in a rhythmic clap as a live band played the premier into the ballroom at about 5pm.

Taking the lectern, Hun Sen quickly reminded the crowd the event was not a press conference.

After ribbing Kanharith for out-of-date information on his ministry’s webpage, and demanding ministries and provincial officials improve their presence on Facebook, the premier began a roughly hour-long lecture on professionalism in the news business.

“Journalists should not be susceptible to flattery; write without fear of being sued if you write truthfully and do not take money to block the news,” he said.

“I want the truth; write without twisting others’ [words] and in case there is a mistake, please do not be scared to make a correction . . . there are some foreign newspapers in Cambodia that wrote incorrectly but do not make any corrections for us.”

The prime minister, who backed Donald Trump for president prior to the November election, also veered back into US politics, noting the president-elect’s hostility toward the American press, for which he blamed the latter.

“I don’t want the press in Cambodia to become dirty like in the US; I want people to believe in your newspaper, not blame it,” he said.

Acknowledging many were passed over for a ticket, Hun Sen vowed to invite more people to next year’s event, to be held on the same date.

Speaking after the event, one reporter, who declined to be named, said given the size of the event and potential for backlash, a back-and-forth with the premier was always going to be out of the question.

“I think the one asking the question would be happy, but the one answering it would not be so happy,” he said.

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