Prime Minister Hun Sen this week called for tighter restrictions on media freedoms, describing independent reporting outlets as purveyors of “fake news” during a meeting with journalists.
He also mocked the Cambodia Daily newspaper, which shuttered after his government handed it an unplayable tax bill last year.
Speaking to a group of journalists and government officials during a dinner on Sunday, Hun Sen said: "I think Donald Trump is right for creating an award for fake news, which was announced several days ago. Even in the US, there are such kinds of journalists until the president created the fake news awards for such media—fakes, cheats, and liars."
On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump joked that he would create a “fake news award” for journalists who criticized his government.
The jibe provoked heavy criticism from major media outlets around the world.
Hun Sen, however, said media outlets in Cambodia what he considers “fake news” had violated the law and thus were closed.
“In Cambodia, there are also such kinds of news outlets, operating without paying tax, cheating, and quietly violating Cambodian law. When they got caught, they pretended to be victims to earn sympathy from foreign governments,” he said.
“This issue should not happen again in Cambodia. The Ministry of Information must be responsible for taking action,” he added.
Since August, the Cambodian government has launched a crackdown on civil society, media outlets and political opposition to Hun Sen’s rule. Numerous media outlets have been targeted, predominantly U.S.-linked media.
Judith Clarke, a retired journalism professor, and Cambodia specialist, however, said the comparison made by Hun Sen was inaccurate, as there was a healthy freedom of the press in the United States.
“The prime minister has copied President Donald Trump in unjustifiably branding regular news outlets as ‘fake’ news, but Trump is but one voice in America, not the only voice—other opinions can be expressed in public and private. And Trump has at most eight years and can be voted out of power,” she said.
“Cambodia needs a multiplicity of voices and independent journalism to tackle its major problems of poverty, environmental degradation, and widespread corruption.”
Two former reporters for Radio Free Asia, which shuttered its Cambodia office last year after government pressure, have been charged under espionage laws and could face up to 15 years in prison.
Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA Khmer last week via email that government pressure on independent news media showed Cambodia was facing a critical test of media freedom.
“Cambodia's clampdown on independent media represents a clear and present danger to press freedom. By silencing the country's few independent voices, Hun Sen's regime has done a disservice to his people and their right to information. It's censorship of the worst kind.”