In the wake of the torching of the Thai embassy and the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property, Cambodia's Secretary of State for Information, Khieu Kanharith, said: 'We always say we are the freest press in the world, because everyone can fabricate news.'
Unfortunately, news fabrication is far from being unknown in Hong Kong as well. The events in Cambodia inevitably brought to mind similar events that had occurred in the past in Hong Kong, fortunately with less serious consequences.
In Cambodia, actions on the part of a reckless media and opportunistic politicians resulted in at least one person being killed and large numbers injured. The Thai ambassador escaped with his life only by climbing over an embassy fence and seeking refuge on a boat. Thai-owned businesses, including hotels and a mobile phone network belonging to the family of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, were also attacked.
Anti-Thai sentiment was triggered by the publication of a report on January 18 in the Rasmei Angkor newspaper that a popular Thai actress, Suvanant Kongying, had claimed that the Angkor temples, Cambodia's cultural icon, had been stolen from Thailand.
The editor, In Chan Watha, later acknowledged he did not bother to check the authenticity of the rumour, but went ahead and published the inflammatory report 'to protect Cambodia's sovereignty'. The fabricated story was picked up by another newspaper, the Koh Santeheap, on January 25. Radio stations also spread similar reports.
It appears clear that ostensibly 'patriotic' but clearly irresponsible journalists published articles, likely to incite the populace, based on nothing but rumour. The Cambodian government then stepped in and made things worse.
On January 25, Prime Minister Hun Sen made inflammatory remarks by publicly deriding the actress, saying: 'Don't be mistaken. She isn't even worth as much as the grass that grows around Angkor.' By saying this, he added credibility to the rumour. He also fanned the flames of nationalism by urging Cambodians not to buy foreign products, a clear allusion to the popularity of Thai consumer goods.
His speech was followed by protests two days later, which began peacefully but got out of hand. Again, the media appeared to have been fanning the flames. Unfounded rumours that the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok had been attacked were broadcast as fact.
After the riots, Hun Sen went on television and blamed the violence on 'a group of extremists who spread lies that the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok has been destroyed'. However, he apparently did not dwell upon his own role. In fact, there is suspicion that the government, with a general election approaching, sought to appeal to xenophobic sentiments. Certainly, both ruling and opposition parties are accusing each other of involvement.
Hong Kong can certainly learn from these incidents. We would like to think our media is streets ahead of Cambodia's. But journalistic standards are certainly not high. The tendency towards sensationalism in the popular press is worrying.
The Hong Kong press is known to have invented news, with one publication sending reporters dressed in People's Liberation Army uniforms to beg on the streets.
Moreover, the press is reluctant to admit mistakes. While a paper like the New York Times runs corrections almost every day, papers in Hong Kong tend to think their credibility will be affected if they admit mistakes. Some run corrections in the form of a letter to the editor. Others do not even publish letters to the editor.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator