Asking for comments from a government spokesperson is a crucial but challenging task for journalists in Cambodia. The spokesperson may not pick up the phone, say they are too busy or refuse to comment. However, in an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the recently-created Royal Government Spokesperson Unit, of which he is the head, will help solve this problem.
KT: How and why was the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit created?
Mr Siphan: This is a very important question for me. To begin with, I would like to show my appreciation to Samdech Techo Hun Sen, for highly valuing media reporting and offering the opportunity for the whole nation to understand, contribute and support this field. He wants the people to receive good and accurate news, as well as to know about and understand the work of the government amid the rise in popularity of online news. That is why he created a spokesperson unit, of which members consist of spokespeople from every ministry, to work with journalists. Our unit is based on the belief that news brings peace and development. During the Khmer Rouge regime, for example, there was no news, so we did not know that so many people were killed. Even [former head of state] Kieu Samphan once said that he did not know about it either.
KT: The main impression is that the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit is there to help answer questions from people and journalists. But, can you please describe to us in detail its authority and responsibility?
Mr Siphan: In our unit, the obligations are divided into levels. The first one is the national level, where the government spokesperson focuses on government policy and the Prime Minister’s principles. Meanwhile, in another level, a ministry spokesperson is responsible over their own area. In the sub-national level is the deputy governors, who are assisted by the Department of Information in offering information to journalists and the public. We also coordinate meetings between spokespersons and journalists, without interfering their dialogue.
The professionalism of a spokesperson is almost the same as a journalist. He or she needs to give information through journalists or other means.
KT: How can the information allow the government to help its people?
Mr Siphan: Media reports are not only needed by the people but also play an important role in good governance. Media reports allow the government to know what the people are happy and unhappy about their governance so that it can adjust its policies. They narrow the gap between the government and the public. In fact, our government is elected by the people. Their taxes pay the spokespersons’ salaries so they have to work for the people.
KT: According to many journalists, spokespersons in some ministries are very helpful, yet some are not. How can the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit use their authority to change that?
Mr Siphan: We are preparing ourselves for that. One of our duties is to formulate mechanisms for ministries. Some ministries are already using them. The Ministry of Health, for example, has the Department of Information and several spokespeople working within their specialisations. Some senior officials treat their spokesperson position as a secondary role to their original position, so they need assistance from information officials in analysing the information that they can give.
Meanwhile, we’ve also seen a mindset change in all ministers toward improvement. We are also training our spokespersons. Of course, no matter how professional you are, you will run into problems one day. But, we should be happy to accept the problems and keep improving ourselves. One of the problems is administrative issues, which means only the top leaders can give certain information. However, the spokespersons cannot just sit and wait for an order from the top. They have to work closely with the departments in the ministry and gather information to be given to the public.