Naval vessels docked at Cambodia's Ream Naval Base in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

If the relationship of a journalist to politicians is supposed to be that of a dog to lampposts, as one saying goes, or either at their throat or at their feet, according to another, then Cambodia’s media today are retentive and supine.

We were greeted to an exegetic display of prostrate journalism on July 26 when dozens of reporters were bused down by the government to “inspect” a naval base in Preah Sihanouk province over which, The Wall Street Journal alleged the weekend beforehand, a deal had been done to allow Chinese soldiers to be based at, a clear violation of Cambodia’s constitution. The Cambodian government, now one of Beijing’s closest allies, called the WSJ article “the worst ever made-up news against Cambodia.” (I might add that it was my co-written article for Asia Times in November 2018 that kickstarted the “Chinese navy base in Cambodia” narrative, and prompted senior Cambodian officials to issue denials almost weekly ever since.)

The obvious question regarding to press trip to the Ream Naval Base, which I am not sure was ever posed before they left, is what were the journalists hoping to find? Burly Chinese seamen smoking Baisha cigarettes and playing dou dizhu? The lowering of the Cambodian flag and the raising of the scarlet banner of the People’s Liberation Army to greet their arrival? A Cambodian defense official admitting that the government has been covering up the truth for more than a year?

No, they saw what everyone thought that would see: exactly what the Cambodian government wanted them to see. (How many media trips put on by governments anywhere in the world actually reveal what governments want to hide?) And it was, after all, organized (or should that be orchestrated?) by Ministry of National Defense spokesman Chhum Socheat and government spokesman Phay Siphan.

The journalists glimpsed a little section of the naval base after being driven through most of it, and then were ushered into a press conference where they were told: “Now you, as national and international eyes and ears, have seen that we have nothing to hide. It has been alleged that we have done this and that, but today we have shown the truth, which is clearer than using words.” It is worth inquiring, however, whether it was incompetence or mind-games that led the government to drive reporters down to the naval base in vans clearly marked as donations from the PLA.

It is worth inquiring whether it was incompetence or mind-games that led the government to drive reporters down to the naval base in vans clearly marked as donations from the PLA

In any case, it wasn’t the journalists who were supposed to be the ones observing something. It was the people who saw the journalists visiting the base that were supposed to do the observing. The entire point of the wasted exercise was that the Cambodian allowed a few dozen people to glimpse a naval base, which meant the government could then claim it is transparent, a message hammered home by numerous spokesman in not-so-subtle ways. Phay Siphan claimed the visit had “killed the fake news,” though that is only true for the most credulous. And speaking of credulity, The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times, the two English-language dailies that are now owed by government-friendly interests, both came away from the visit in complete agreement with the government, surprisingly enough.

The Khmer Times, a newspaper that makes degradation out of the act of reading, thought the whole matter settled enough to shout in a headline: “Ream Naval Base tour dispels report of China presence.” The same day, its editors thought they would try their own deconstruction of the news in an editorial that just ended up reading like a Chinese embassy press release. “A nation cannot choose its neighbors but can choose on a dependable friend,” it stated, meaning China. “A friend who has come to the aid of a Cambodia which is in need of billions for infrastructure development.” There, there. No more mention of a Chinese naval base, exclaimed those who haven’t put one day’s worth of research into the issue.

The editors also appeared to think that just because the WSJ quoted unnamed sources, it disproved the story entirely. Maybe, though, the Khmer Times is more used to getting its quotes spoon-fed from government officials. Personally speaking, it is far better to protect sources, as the WSJ did, than to make up bylines (don’t you agree, Khmer Times?) or to lie about where your funding comes from. In more wearisome news, I also hear that the Ministry of Information has recently appointed another 106 journalists to become advisers at the ministry, after dozens were appointed earlier this year.

Yet farce is never too far away from tragedy, and what really made July 26 a woeful day for Cambodian journalism was that, as about 70 reporters traipsed out of Phnom Penh on a pointless visit to a naval base, the trial of two journalists – former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin – began in the capital. They were arrested in late 2017 on espionage charges and could face up to 15 years in jail.

“The fabricated case against the ex-RFA journalists is intended as a strike against media that dares to criticize the Cambodian government,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said as the trial began, while calling the charges “bogus.” All this came the same week as two other Cambodian journalists – Hun Sokha and Keo Ratana – were arrested for live-streaming a land-rights protest in Preah Sihanouk province.

They were charged with being accomplices to a felony, presumably the protest, and incitement. In what can only be described as the Cambodian government being honest about its abhorrence of the truth, a spokesman for the courts said the pair were arrested for “incitement through journalism.” But is there any other kind of good journalism than provocation?

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