CAMBODIA’s Prime Minister Hun Sen hijacked a press conference at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Asean in Phnom Penh on Thursday to attack two media outlets he accused of spewing anti-government rhetoric, say local reports.
In his tirade, the leader singled out The Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia (RFA) – both independent English-language dailies – labelling them “American outlets” as he ducked their business-related questions.
“You work for Radio Free Asia, which is a radio against the government. And you write for Cambodia Daily, which opposes me all the time,” he said, according to The Phnom Penh Post.
The Cambodia Daily said the journalists Hun Sen pointed to when making his remarks had asked the leader how the nation’s youth would be trained for jobs of the future. They also asked for details on Cambodia’s plans for participation in China’s “One Road, One Belt” economic policy.
Hun Sen told them to “write it properly because it is a live broadcast”, before adding if the journalists failed to do so, “then it will be seen that you, niece and nephew who are working for foreigners, are actually the servants of foreigners.”
“I don’t want to hear such a word,” he reportedly said.
According to The Phnom Penh Post, Hun Sen’s tirade didn’t end there. The prime minister also went on to link his achievements in eliminating the Khmer Rouge with the freedom the two journalists currently enjoy in working for “foreign” media outlets.
“Your grandparents and parents could survive, so that is why you can work for American radio and newspapers. Is this not a live example of what the Royal Government is doing for you?” he was quoted saying.
Quartz Asia bureau chief Tripti Lahiri said it was a surprising exchange as the questions posed to the prime minister were “reasonable.”
“The prime minister spent the bulk of his answer criticising the outlets the reporters worked for, instead of responding to two reasonable questions,” Lahiri was quoted telling The Cambodia Daily.
RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan said the incident was a clear demonstration of “what poor regard Cambodia’s government has for independent, free press.”
WEF head of public and social engagement Adrian Monck, when concluding the briefing, said critical news outlets were important for economic growth.
“I think one of the key findings from the forum’s Global Competitiveness Report is that healthy, critical media is an important part of any growing economy.”
“The World Economic Forum’s own global rankings show accountability and scrutiny help economies become more competitive. Media plays an important role as a stakeholder in that process,” he reportedly said in an email statement later.
Cambodian People’s Party Sok Eysan, however, said there was nothing wrong with Hun Sen’s outburst.
PM Hun Sen told RFA, Daily journos who asked him at WEF briefing "don't be too extreme like foreigners, it's better, just to remind you" pic.twitter.com/DgNDhuSTxp
— Chan Thul Prak (@prakchanthul) May 11, 2017
He said the leader was merely trying to point out had the Pol Pot-led regime stayed in power, many of the journalists currently operating in Cambodia would not be enjoying their current freedom.
Hun Sen’s over three-decade rule of Cambodia has long been marred by accusations of human rights abuses and corruption. He regularly lashes out at the media, often accusing those who centre their reports on human rights as attempting to stir anarchy.
Last year, the Cambodian government instructed all media outlets in the country to address Hun Sen as “Lord” Prime Minister, also warning failure to do so would result in punishment. However, it is believed the rule has never been enforced.