Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Dith Tina renewed his calls for local online English language media outlet VOD to take down their four articles published in November with contents that he said accuse the ministry of using threats against people who criticize the ministry’s measures on low paddy rice pricing.

The minister renewed his request on December 6 during a meeting with media representatives held at the ministry’s headquarters as well as through social media posts.

The controversy began after a series of news reports published by VOD English on the concerns of rice farmers in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey regarding low paddy prices.

The low rice price concerns in November prompted the ministry to send two undersecretaries of states to inspect the situation before taking action to establish a standard minimum price for those provinces using a state owned enterprise.

Following their inspection, the agriculture ministry released a statement explaining the situation. It also urged farmers not to spread fake news about how the ministry does not care about them.

The ministry said spreading fake news could only negatively affect the farmers’ situation.

“The ministry wishes to appeal to social media users to ‘refrain from disseminating’ false information claiming that it ignores the issue and does not provide any solutions,” the November 15 press release said.

“Such false information only increases concerns among farmers whose paddy is not yet ready to harvest and may provoke a panic, causing them to rush to harvest their crops early, which will only further contribute to the lowering of the price of paddy,” it added.

VOD English translated the appeal as “banning” the spread of criticism and “threatening or “warning” the farmers not to criticize the ministry rather asking them not to spread fake news, and it is these terms that the ministry is at odds with the VOD over.

On December 2, the ministry wrote a letter to the VOD English editor-in-chief, expressing dismay that the VOD reporters “lack professionalism and ethics” and engaged in “fact distortion”.

The ministry said that the reporters who are Cambodian should have the ability to extract the correct statements from the ministry’s press release, which was written in simple Khmer intentionally to make it easy to translate.

“VOD English should take down all four of the articles and stop incorrect reporting to show that they are responsible and their journalism is professional,” the letter said.

As of this week, none of the four stories have been taken down.

Tina said on December 6 that he had compared the four articles published in Khmer and English. He said the stories in Khmer were acceptable, but those in English did not use the correct and accurate terms.

The Post had reached out to the reporters whose bylines appear on those stories, but they declined to comment and referred questions to their editor-in-chief Yeang Sothearin.

When contacted on December 8 for comment, Sothearin said: “I don’t have any comment on it”.

Minister Tina has highlighted the issue of “false media reporting” on social media, especially his Twitter channel. The issue has also attracted many comments from the social media users. Some users urged VOD to label the stories as opinion pieces, while some others more harshly criticized VOD.

“We hope VOD English corrects the distortions and stops confusing people,” tweeted Soneath Bun.

Another user named Chao Bon tweeted: “VOD English always broadcasts information that is contrary to reality and intended to anger the masses and the government.”

Moeun Chhean Narith, journalism professor at the University of Cambodia, told The Post that criticism is normal in a democratic country and the media sometimes can make mistakes in their reporting, but what is important is that the media admit their mistakes and issue a correction or retraction to those stories that notes what errors were made in previous versions.

“Journalists must strengthen their duty to professionalism, and they must always be careful about reporting information that is suspicious or unverified. This is to avoid legal action and being seen as spreading fake news, which affects national security, political situations, and public order,” he said.

In the case where the Ministry of Agriculture urged farmers to stop the dissemination of false information, which the VOD then regarded as a “warning” or “threat”, Chhean Narith said that this problem could come from the habit of using harsh words by the media for purposes of sensationalism or to make stories more exciting.

“What matters is that journalists have to choose appropriate words, as explained by the Ministry of Agriculture. But when journalists say that the Ministry of Agriculture warns them, the verb “warn” is a serious word when talking about government authority and that makes the Ministry of Agriculture think that this word is not appropriate,” he said.

He continued that the journalists should use moderate words such as the agriculture ministry mentioned. In this situation that could be “informed”, “advised” or perhaps “cautioned”.

He also said that the allegations that the ministry “threatened” can only be used if there were physical or legal threats against the article authors. The request not to share false information was not a threat, as even UNESCO, civil society organsations and other institutions are currently campaigning to eliminate the dissemination of false information, he said.

“Sometimes [we] use the wrong words by mistake, but such a mistake can make the situation worse and that misunderstanding can cause problems,” he added.

“The request not to share false information does not matter. But the request should not continue with another sentence, such as ‘if you continue to do so, you will suffer penalties or legal issues,” he said.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith told The Post that the Ministry of Agriculture could file a complaint with the courts if it found that the publication was publishing false information detrimental to its interests.

“As an entity or an individual, if we see that the publication affects our interests, our reputation, we can file a complaint with the courts or the competent authority,” he said.

Ministry of Information spokesman Meas Sophorn said that the dissemination of false information or fake news seriously affects society, daily life and people's decisions. Thus, preventing the dissemination of false information or unsourced and unverified information does not present a threat to legitimate rights or freedom of expression.

“If any group or media outlet claims that calling on, encouraging or requesting citizens or media outlets to stop the spread of false information is a threat, my understanding would be that the group or media outlet in question has the intent to encourage other media outlets to continue to spread false information in our society.

“The dissemination of false information leads to chaos in society, makes citizens feel uneasy, and impedes rational decision making,” he added.

He asked that journalists abide by the laws and legal standards and stick to their professional ethical code as journalists.

“Journalists must stand on the principles of truth and respect the right of the people to know the truth. Journalists must disseminate news in good faith and make comments or criticism properly under the law,” Sophorn said.