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UN defence of free press comes amid gov’t threats

Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech at a graduation ceremony on Monday in Phnom Penh. Facebook
Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech at a graduation ceremony on Monday in Phnom Penh. Facebook

UN defence of free press comes amid gov’t threats

The UN’s human rights body came out against so-called “fake news” while staunchly defending freedom of the press yesterday, in a message seemingly aimed at the administrations of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump – albeit one that resonates in Cambodia after recent government statements.

The declaration – released last Friday by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization of American States and the representative for freedom of media at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – adopted general principles condemning both the rise of disinformation and unnamed governments’ efforts to tarnish legitimate media as such.

Since the term “fake news” achieved global prominence during recent US elections, Russia has repeatedly been accused of running a global disinformation campaign, while Trump has taken to applying the sobriquet to any news reports he finds unflattering.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, meanwhile, has waded into the fray himself, pointing to the Trump administration’s decision to sideline media outlets such as the New York Times and CNN as evidence that a free press is tantamount to “anarchy” and should not come at the expense of “stability”.

The signatories of yesterday’s statement, however, appeared to reject that rationale, saying they were “Alarmed at instances in which public authorities denigrate, intimidate and threaten the media, including by stating that the media is ‘the opposition’ or is ‘lying’ and has a hidden political agenda”.

Yesterday’s statement also reaffirms the importance of a plurality of ideas, as well as states’ “positive obligation to promote a free, independent and diverse communications environment, including media diversity”.

The day before Hun Sen’s remarks, government spokesman Phay Siphan, also alluding to the Trump administration, had threatened to “crush” media outlets that threatened stability. And Hun Sen appeared to double down on his previous line on Monday, warning journalists and political analysts to “be careful”, or face jail time if their words crossed a line.

Indeed, much of the Khmer-language media is either government-aligned or practices self-censorship, and Puy Kea, secretary-general of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, yesterday defended the government’s stance, saying that the fault often lay with journalists and analysts who lacked ethics.

“If we follow professionalism, it’s totally fine,” he said. The recent arrest of analyst Kim Sok over comments on the murder of fellow analyst Kem Ley, Kea argued, was “a good example for other analysts ... They should use proper terms and wording.”

The prime minister’s remarks, he added, were fair. “It is good if they warn first, so that the journalists should be more careful when they report,” he said.

But Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, disagreed. “The prime minister always warns, threatens, and intimidates,” he said.

It was the public’s and NGO’s obligation to “strictly scrutinise” decisions by the government, he said. If that scrutiny is perceived as unfair, “the government should show that by peacefully clarifying their point”, rather than launching libel cases.

Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson also argued that Cambodia was far from meeting international standards on freedoms of press and expression.

“The Cambodian government has created for itself the legal power to throw people in prison for expressing opinions that Hun Sen and the top CPP leaders don’t like,” he said.

Pointing to the country’s small handful of independent media outlets, he noted “all of these outlets still face regular threats and obstacles from the government, which would not hesitate for a second to take them over or put them out of business if they could do it without sparking too much of an outcry”.

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