It was clear before Prime Minister Hun Sen took the stage on Saturday that his inaugural meeting with local journalists in Phnom Penh was not going to be a confrontational affair.
The crowd of hundreds of journalists and government officials—notably left off the list were U.S.-funded radio broadcasters and foreign-based media outlets—clapped in unison as he entered Sokha hotel’s main ballroom to a soundtrack of traditional music being played by a band in the back.
Any hope that the dinner—with wine flowing once Mr. Hun Sen arrived, a multi-course meal and music from pop stars following his speech—might give journalists a rare opportunity to ask the prime minister questions was quickly dashed.
“Today, I would like to clarify that this is not a press conference, and it is not for the celebration of my 32 years as prime minister,” Mr. Hun Sen said as he began an hourlong speech telling journalists and the government officials they deal with how to do their jobs.
“Now I need to talk to media outlets; do not be angry with me,” he said, explaining that honest talk had proven key to keeping power. “That is the reason I could be in the position of prime minister for 32 years, and [opponents] don’t try to play the game to topple me, and don’t even try about the color revolution,” he said, noting that protests against the government had subsided significantly of late.
“And now it seems very quiet about the color revolution. Where are they now? Why don’t they come out to say that a lot of people die? Why has it been so quiet?” he said. (Local rights group Licadho places the current number of political prisoners, including activists and opposition officials, at 26.)
Returning to his lecture on the media, he asked himself what made an outlet the smartest. “It’s the media that is accurate and fast,” he said, in what would become a refrain during the speech.
Other bits of advice to media outlets were to have a web presence, run corrections when mistakes are made, to not take bribes for burying news involving the rich and powerful, to not extort illegal loggers or set up illegal road checkpoints, and to not go beyond the role of being a “mirror” for society.
Some journalists, the prime minister said, “act as politicians by giving recommendations that this party should do this or that party should not do that. It’s not your role—your role is to give the truth. The conclusion should be the readers’. Let them be the judge and make the conclusion. You are just the commentator, you are not an investigating judge or the presiding judge or even a prosecutor to press charges.”
Mr. Hun Sen did not spare the Information Ministry, which organized the event, from criticism, mocking the ministry for not updating its own website since November.
“Before you clean the other’s bottom, clean your bottom first,” he joked, also telling ministries and local governments to make sure they were sharing updates about their work through their own websites and Facebook pages.
The prime minister said those left off the guest list this year need not despair, as the event would grow to some 4,000 journalists next year, perhaps requiring it to be held in a public park.
“Next year, I will invite the opposition newspapers to join, to show unity between professional journalists and unprofessional, even if we have different opinions,” he said, though he sent a different message to journalists working for foreign outlets.
“Those who eat rice provided by foreigners keep eating rice provided by foreigners,” he said, adding that foreign-funded newspapers in Cambodia were not upholding international standards in their own work and falsely applying it to his.
“Let me tell you something about international standards,” he said, explaining that it only applied to sectors such as sports and food. “For political issues, do not talk about international standards.”
Touching on U.S. politics repeatedly, Mr. Hun Sen bragged about his prescient support for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and suggested that the U.S. was behind efforts to delegitimize the outcome of Cambodia’s national election in 2013.
“A few things that used to happen here are now happening in the U.S. demonstrations after election results. The accusation of vote manipulation is now also happening in the U.S.,” he said. “What’s happening in the U.S. today is proof that what the U.S. did in Cambodia is going back to the U.S.”
Ouk Kimseng, spokesman for the Information Ministry, denied that there were any political reasons for leaving journalists from Radio Free Asia and Voice of America off the guest list.
“The number of people reached the limit already,” he said, adding that other organizations that were not perceived as being anti-government did not get the invite, though he could not name any.
Mr. Kimseng said the U.S.-backed broadcasters would be invited next year, but was not sure about outlets based abroad.
“Actually, we need to sit down to discuss and get further recommendations from the government and prime minister to invite as many people as possible,” he said.
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