In a Title Fight, Phnom Penh Orders the Press to Use ‘Samdech’ for Top Government Officials

Media outlets reporting on Cambodia’s highest-ranking officials will have to use their full honorific titles, or else face state retaliation that could end their ability to gather and disseminate the news in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country, the government said on Thursday.

Starting in August, all media must use the full, honorary titles on first reference for Prime Minister Hun Sen; Chairman of the National Assembly Heng Samrin; Chairman of the Senate Say Chhum; and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng.

The order requires media outlets to append the Khmer word “samdech” to all of their titles. Roughly translated, the word means “lord.” All the officials that fall under the requirement are members of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, in English, becomes Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander Hun Sen. In Khmer, he’s Samdech Akeak Moha Sena Padey Techo Hun Sen.

The Information Ministry announced the change on Thursday during a nearly three-hour meeting at its Phnom Penh headquarters, telling journalists they must show respect for Cambodia’s highest leaders.

“We want you to state the full title of leaders in the story’s lead or first sentence,” said Ouk Kimseng undersecretary of state at the Information Ministry, who led the meeting. Subsequent references can drop the long title, he said.

During the meeting, ministry officials warned that legal action will be taken against media that don’t comply.

While Hun Sen’s government already tightly controls the media, news outlets can lose their licenses to operate if they fail to comply with the directive.

Opposition target

The new rule appears to be aimed at media outlets that the government views as supporting the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party or outlets that lean toward the West. Pro-government media already use the honorary titles.

For international media outlets broadcasting in the Khmer language such as RFA, the ministry will essentially block RFA broadcasts on FM radio stations if they fail to follow the new directive. RFA’s policy is to use functional titles, such as prime minister or foreign minister, without honorific titles.

When asked about the directive’s impact on foreign media, Ouk Kimseng gave a love-it-or-leave-it answer using an old Khmer proverb.

“If you want to follow the stream, you have to stay in the channel,” he said. “We want to work in a country with integrity, with laws and customs. Once we cannot do that work, we should not be here. We must use this word. If you’re are not satisfied, leave.”

The move comes as Hun Sen appears to be launching a new effort to crack down on dissent as national elections approach.

While Hun Sen and the CPP have ruled the country for three decades, Cambodia’s ruling party suffered a dramatic drop in support during the country’s last election in 2013, and could see even more erosion in the 2017 commune elections and 2018 general election.

During his time in power, Hun Sen has exerted strong control over the media, and dissent is a risky proposition.

Hun Sen and the CPP have attacked dissenters with lawsuits, and the government has thrown Cambodian National Rescue Party lawmakers in jail on what many see as questionable charges.

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