The Ministry of Information gave a final warning to media outlets on Thursday, ordering that they refer to Prime Minister Hun Sen and select officials with their honorific “Samdech” or face legal action, while a ministry official said insubordination could lead to the termination of licenses.
Media outlets were first ordered in December to start using the honorific. In May, the ministry set a June deadline for newspapers and broadcasters registered in Cambodia to start referring to Mr. Hun Sen and top CPP officials as “Samdech,” a royally bestowed honorific that translates roughly as “the greatest.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a speech at his office building in Phnom Penh in May. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily) The country’s three English-language dailies, together with U.S.-funded radio broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, have yet to comply with the order.
With the deadline passed, the ministry ratcheted up its rhetoric in a statement signed by Information Minister Khieu Kanharith on Thursday.
“To maintain identity and cultural traditions of the nation, the Ministry of Information always issues notices to educate reporters, those who work in the media sector and broadcasters in the Kingdom of Cambodia to…respect the law and respect national traditions,” the statement said.
“However, some small media outlets and reporters still show aggression in practicing the opposite to what the ministry has informed them, as well as giving commentary which is contrary to reality in order to create a poisonous social atmosphere, affecting the dignity of the leaders of the nation and cultural traditions,” it said.
“The Ministry of Information issues a last warning. If any outlets still continue to violate the announcement above, the Ministry of Information will take action in accordance with the law.”
Contacted by telephone, Ouk Kimseng, an undersecretary of state at the ministry, said the ministry could revoke the licenses of any media outlet that continues to ignore the order.
“The important thing is that the ministry will not renew licenses to operate newspapers” if they continue to ignore the order, Mr. Kimseng said.
“Not renewing a license is equal to closing it down,” Mr. Kimseng said, adding that the ministry has the right to revoke a license, but declining to name the law it came under.
Mr. Kanharith did not respond to a request for comment.
The 1995 Press Law contains provisions about respecting Cambodian customs, but the specific article focuses on curse words and sexual content and penalizes violators with a fine, not a shutdown.
The government’s insistence on the media’s use of the rare honorific, which is also held by Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Senate President Say Chhum, National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol, has already had an effect.
Voice of Democracy, an independent media organization run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), started to use the “Samdech” title on first reference to Mr. Hun Sen on Monday, CCIM executive director Pa Nguon Teang said.
“Actually we have been discussing it for some time since the order from the ministry, and we [are] starting using the title first at the beginning and still kept the same as normal,” Mr. Teang said.
“So we start with ‘Samdech’ and afterwards we say whatever,” he said, adding that “Mr. Prime Minister” or “Mr. Hun Sen” is used from then on.
“Our main goal of our position is to maintain our political independence. When we consider started with this word it doesn’t affect on our content, it’s OK. We also don’t want to face a confrontation,” he said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, head of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said he believed the English-language press might stay out of the government’s firing line, but could not be sure.
“I don’t think the government will target the foreign language press because you don’t have as much of an audience as the Khmer press and do not have as much impact as the local press,” Mr. Chhean Narridh said.
“But in Cambodia anything can happen.”
narim@cambodiadaily.com, wright@cambodiadaily.com
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