Hun Sen rules Cambodia through media-made ‘cult of personality’

By: Paul Millar - Posted on: July 9, 2016 | Cambodia

The Hun family’s vast control over Cambodia’s media has silenced opposition and created an airbrushed view of the PM’s party, a Global Witness report has found

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has used his family’s vast fortune and stranglehold on the nation’s media to establish his own cult of personality, an investigation by UK-based transparency watchdog Global Witness has reported.

hun sen global witness
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen greets students during a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: EPA

The report, Hostile Takeover, has accused the Hun family of constructing a vast network of patronage and corruption that has given its members business interests in a staggering 114 domestic companies with listed capital of more than $200m – a suspected fraction of the Huns’ true wealth. Of these companies, nine out of ten count a family member as having total or substantial control over the enterprise – the foundation of a 30-year dynasty that has seen the ruling party see off all opposition through an iron grip on the nation’s military, judiciary and police force.

However, one of the most troubling allegations is the sheer weight of influence the Hun family has on Cambodia’s media.

Hun Mana, Hun Sen’s eldest daughter, is listed in the report as being one of only two media moguls in Cambodia with holdings across TV, radio and the newspaper industry. The media company she chairs – and owns 100% of the shares of – Bayon Media Hight System, broadcasts three different TV stations and runs one of the country’s leading radio outlets, all of which display a bias towards Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The popular Khmer language newspaper, the Kampuchea Thmey Daily, is also chaired and fully owned by Mana. Bayon TV and Radio also sponsor two army battalions in the nation’s military.

Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media, said that the Hun family’s stranglehold on the nation’s media outlets was the foundation of his rule.

“Hun Sen has ruled this country by media, not by a system of authority,” he told Southeast Asia Globe in an email.

Teang described Hun Mana as a faithful daughter propping up her father’s regime.

“There is no doubt the media she owns is being used to gain her father power by promoting what her father has done – rightly or wrongly – and also to confuse the public’s perception of her father’s negative activities,” he said. “So it creates a big impact when the prime minister’s family member owns multiple media which may share a large percentage of listenership.”

According to Cambodian Centre for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap, the CPP’s monopoly on the media has created an airbrushed image of the government in the eyes of many Cambodians.

“The ruling party’s control over much of Cambodia’s media, with very few exceptions such as foreign-owned print media and radio, prevents citizens from having access to balanced information as, unsurprisingly, the information disseminated by these media outlets is generally favourable to the ruling party,” she said. “In the absence of a pluralistic media, citizens are unable to make informed decisions about public and political matters.”

The report describes a series of calculated steps by the Hun family and its supporters to create a “cult of personality” around the reigning premier.

“The premier’s photo is plastered all over the country, both on urban street corners and in rural villages, even more so than Cambodia’s king,” the report states. “Karaoke videos singing the praises of Hun Sen or Bun Rany air relentlessly across many Cambodian TV stations and not only laud the couple generally but also promote recent government policy decisions. Many state institutions and public spaces such as libraries, streets and schools are named after Hun Sen.”

For Teang, the mythologising of Hun Sen was founded on the twin pillars of philanthropy and a tame media.

“In his capacity as prime minister, he uses state resources to donate to the poor and other populist activities – mostly at a community level – and airs them via all the media controlled and influenced by his family,” he said.

Increasingly, Sopheap told Southeast Asia Globe, Cambodians were turning to new media to shape their view of the world – a shift that has set the government on edge.

“Social media has quickly become the primary arena to access more diverse information in Cambodia and allow citizens to be better informed about events in the country than ever before,” she said. “Unfortunately, in the past year, we have seen a targeted crackdown on internet freedom and digital rights by the government, with many social media users being subject to arrest, detention and unfair convictions.”

Hun Sen himself has embraced the potential of social media to build grassroots support with the public. Hostile Takeover cited a Reuters article revealing that the premier employs civil servants from seven different government ministries to scour the nation’s newsfeeds for grievances for him to step in and solve.

Teang described Hun Sen’s social media profile as just another propaganda tool for the premier.

“The prime minister now uses his official Facebook account to solve the country’s problems raised by the public, to make order, and to show the public that he is working hard for the nation,” he said.

Sopheap called for widespread reform of Cambodia’s media ownership laws – although she admitted that any real change was a dubious prospect.

“There is a strong need for genuine ownership regulation in Cambodia to ensure plurality and independence of the media,” she said. “Under no circumstances should political parties, politicians or anyone associated with such entities own, directly or indirectly, forms of media.

“Unfortunately, given the current political climate and increasing restrictions on freedom of expression in Cambodia, this is unlikely to happen any time soon.”

In a post on her Facebook page, Hun Mana was unrepentant.

“Thank you Global Witness for taking your time and many resources to research about our HUN Family. We very much understand your intention toward my father and my family. And as expected every time when we are near election time, your organisation always comes out with something to try to tarnish my father’s reputation,” she wrote. “Please go ahead and continue your work if you have nothing else to do.”