Prime Minister Hun Sen this week ordered the expulsion of a U.S. non-governmental organization after it assisted CNN with a news report on alleged child sex exploitation.
Hun Sen called CNN’s report into child sex trafficking in Svay Pak, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, an “insult which can’t be tolerated.”
He ordered the expulsion of Agape International Missions (AIM), which has worked in the anti-sex trafficking sector in Cambodia since 2005. “Regardless of cost, this NGO must leave Cambodia. It can’t stay here,” he said.
“My country is poor, but you can’t insult my Cambodians,” he added.
Gen. Khieu Sopheak, interior spokesman, and Chum Sounry, foreign affairs spokesman, could not be reached.
Late last month, CNN broadcast a short documentary report titled “The Cambodian Girls Sold for Sex by their Mothers,” but after protests from the Cambodian government, it removed the word “Cambodia”.
In the film, a CNN reporter visited Svay Pak, once infamous for its child brothels, and interviewed Don Brewster, AIM’s founder, who told CNN that Svay Pak was “at one point the epicenter” of Cambodian child sex trafficking. He adds that “although children are no longer being sold in brothels here, trafficking is now taking place in hotels, where it is harder to detect, and harder to prevent.”
CNN this week stood by its report.
Jonathan Hawkins, a CNN spokesman, said the broadcaster had used a variety of sources to verify the information contained in its report.
“The story is about the collaboration between various groups in Cambodia, including the police, to eradicate this problem. It is fair and factual, as well as important, and there is nothing sensational or unbalanced about it. What’s more, if anything, it actually congratulates the Cambodian authorities on their efforts,” he wrote in an email.
Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state at the interior ministry, said the government wanted “honesty” from CNN.
“I want professional journalists to not use their positions to express hatred ... by downgrading other nationalities. It’s not right,” she added.
The government’s objections rest on the claim that the girls featured in CNN’s report were not Khmer, but rather Vietnamese-speakers, though officials did not explain why ethnic Vietnamese could not be Cambodians.
“Vietnamese language was spoken but it says they are Cambodian women. I don’t know where the accuracy is,” said Bun Eng.
But Hawkins of CNN said focusing on the ethnicity of the people in the piece missed the point.
“This is an issue occurring in Cambodia, with girls who live and – in the case of the girls we interviewed – grew up in Cambodia. They experienced horrendous abuse in Cambodia,” he wrote.
In a statement, AIM said it “is working to provide a full statement regarding this issue as soon as possible. Meanwhile, AIM maintains the highest regard for the people and leadership of Cambodia. We have served here for many decades and look forward to a resolution.”
Am Sam Ath, head of local rights group Licadho’s investigation unit, said Cambodia should not welcome NGOs who were found to have broken the law.
“We, civil society, don’t support any NGO that breaks the law. They must abide by the law,” he said.