Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen virtually addresses the general debate of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 26 in New York. (Photo: Evan Schneider/United Nations/AFP)
The idea that a prime minister or president would leak stories about one news organization to another is almost unheard of. It’s the type of job best left to the underlings but not in Cambodia, where one news portal has cited Prime Minister Hun Sen as its leak.
Perhaps more importantly, the story behind the story offers a rare insight into the type of politics which is shaping a government that is often upset by criticism and all too quick to jump on the fake news bandwagon in self-defense.
Billed as TOP NEWS, it started on Sept. 21 when Fresh News reported that Chun Chanboth, deputy director of Radio Free Asia (RFA), had told the prime minister’s eldest son, General Hun Manet, that US intelligence monitored Fresh News.
“It also translated the content and images published by Fresh News and reported to [US intelligence] superiors in order to monitor the Cambodian government.” And? That is their job.
Fresh News also said this information came from a meeting held between Hun Manet and Chun Chanboth in Phnom Penh on April 10, 2017, and it was leaked to Fresh News by Hun Sen recently.
So, the prime minister leaked a conversation between his son and the deputy director of RFA held three years ago, which begs the question: why?
According to the initial Fresh News dispatch, Chun Chanboth also said he had no right to state his own opinion “for he must follow his superior’s commands.”
A day later Fresh News published the second of three dispatches, perhaps out of a sense of fair play, with Chun Chanboth adding that RFA did not only serve the now banned opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
It said Chun Chanboth had also told Hun Manet “he wanted to see the ruling Cambodian People’s Party [CPP] use RFA too for media transparency,” adding this “was leaked to Fresh News on September 20, 2020, by Prime Minister Hun Sen.”
“This meeting is a great opportunity for us to learn from one another and how we can collaborate so that the ruling CPP can use RFA just like the opposition party,” Chun Chanboth reportedly said.
“In fact, RFA does not serve the CNRP exclusively. It is just that the CPP ignores us,” Fresh News quoted Hun Sen as saying what his son had presumably told him.
Independent news told straight is difficult to come by in Cambodia these days, a legacy of the last election in 2018 which the CNRP was banned from contesting amid a crackdown on the free press.
The results are government-friendly news services attempting to deliver the prime minister’s message without any editorial guidance. Local journalists have been frightened into self-censorship and stories, such as this one, are often mangled.
But there are historical ramifications.
CNRP leader Kem Sokha remains under house arrest for treason. His arrest followed the release of a video, shot badly on a smartphone in Springvale, a working-class suburb of Melbourne, Australia, which is heavily populated by a Khmer and Vietnamese diaspora.
"Before changing the top level, we need to uproot the lower one," he said.
"The USA, which has assisted me, has asked me to take the model from Yugoslavia, Serbia, where they were able to change the dictator Milosevic.
"I don't just do what I feel. I have experts, university professors in Washington DC, and Montreal, Canada, hired by the Americans in order to advise me on the strategy to change the leaders."
Like the recent Fresh News dispatch about comments made three years earlier, this video was actually shot about five years before Kem Sokha’s arrest and had been widely circulated.
No one seemed to notice or care until the authorities decided to use that video for political advantage and Cambodia’s judiciary — ranked 112 out of 113 countries in the 2017/18 Rule of Law Index — obliged and the CNRP was dissolved.
What is important is that Cambodia’s relationship with the US is far from great amid sanctions and the recent arrests and jailing of dissidents and CNRP supporters — and that can make life difficult for independent broadcasters backed by government funding, such as RFA.
In a third dispatch, published on Sept. 24 and again leaked by Hun Sen, Hun Manet was apparently told that the deputy Chun Chanboth does not have the right to freely express his opinions to the public and that he was under a lot of pressure from RFA director Sam Poly.
“He [Sam Poly] is the director, but he focuses more on administration work due to lacks of journalism [sic],” Chun Chanboth stated with the quotes published in bold.
Whether that’s just bad propaganda or some kind of warning is difficult to tell, but — even though it was leaked by the prime minister — some editorial guidance would not go astray.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.