Global Witness and the language of deception

As the previous post on this blog noted, most media uncritically accepted the claims of Global Witness’ report Hostile Takeover to “link” Hun Sen’s family to companies with a total registered capital of $201 million, when in fact the report documents ownership only of $15.8 million by Hun Sen’s extended family and of $31.4 million by two of his children’s in-laws. It all hinges on exactly what GW means by “link” – something it never explains.

That is far from the only instance of the report playing fast and loose with words. Under the heading “Key Findings”, on page 4, GW declares: Hun Sen’s immediate family has registered interests in 114 private domestic companies with listed capital of more than US$200 million”. Aside from the fact that none of the companies have any listed capital, and that “registered interests” appears to be a deliberate attempt to conflate an undefined connection such as membership on a board of directors with ownership of a company’s registered capital, GW here engages in a further major falsehood.

Probably not a lot of readers of GW’s report paged down to the endnote attached to Hun Sen’s immediate family”. Those of us who did jump from page 4 to the fine print on page 42 discovered that GW was using “immediate family” to mean something quite different from what the rest of the English-speaking world normally means by the term. The endnote says: “This [Hun Sen’s immediate family’] comprises 21 members of the family, including three of Hun Sen’s children, all five of his children-in-law and numerous members of his extended family, including his younger sister and some of his nieces and nephews and their spouses”. (My italics.)

In English, “immediate family”, according to Wikipedia, “normally includes a person’s parents, spouses, siblings, children”.

Members of an extended family are more distantly related. In normal usage, nieces and nephews are extended family, not immediate family. Their spouses would generally not be considered family at all – but GW claims that they are “immediate family”!

GW defines as part of Hun Sen’s “immediate family” two people who are only the mother-in-law and brother-in-law of two of his children – who in most definitions would not be included even in “extended family”. And it is no coincidence that these two individuals own two-thirds of all the registered capital that GW is able to establish as belonging to individuals named in its table.

GW also includes in the “immediate family” one of Hun Sen’s cousins and the latter’s now divorced wife. Since these two are “linked” between them to only five companies with a total of only $25,000 in registered capital, perhaps they were included mainly to bulk up the membership of the “huge network” that GW claims to have uncovered.

GW wants to portray a family that, octopus-like, has the entire economy in its grip. But that requires some numbers of people, and GW could find only 17 or 18 people in Hun Sen’s extended family who had some “link” to a business. So GW simply falsified things, calling children’s in-laws, a cousin and an ex-in-law “immediate family”.

And there is more misrepresentation in Hostile Takeover. While GW’s text and its Annex 1 table claim that the Cambodian economy is dominated by 21 individuals, elsewhere in the report the “network” is allowed to expand. On pages 16-17, GW presents an “infographic” (what lesser mortals call a diagram) which “shows all of the Cambodian companies that members of the Hun family have interests in”. But in reality, the diagram is not intended to tell the reader anything about the companies, whose names appear in very small print. What is most visible (in red print) are the names of near and distant relatives and in-laws, connected to each other by lines and arrows. And just in case readers are too stupid to understand that this diagram is meant to present a picture of the “network” rather than what the caption says it presents, a photograph of the Prime Minister is at the centre of the web.

Curiously, the number of individual names in the web is 27, while the number in Annex 1’s list of people “linked to” or “interested in” the various companies is 21. In the “infographic” that claims to show companies that members of Hun Sen’s family “have interests in”, GW includes six people for whom no business interests are listed. What are they doing in the diagram?

Causing problems for Global Witness, that’s what. Two of the six are Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, H.E. Bun Rany Hun Sen. That’s right: at the very centre of GW’s picture of a vast network controlling the Cambodian economy are two people who have no “links to” or “interests in” private businesses that GW could find. It seems to me like a strange way to build a business empire, but then I don’t have an MBA.

Another two extraneous people in the “infographic” are two sons of Hun Sen and Bun Rany: Hun Manet and Hun Many. They also have no business “interests” or “links”, according to GW. In the same category are Hun Sen’s brother Hun Neng and the latter’s son Hun Seang Heng. It appears that the “empire” avoids nepotism: being immediate or extended family of the Prime Minister doesn’t get you automatic membership, but ex-spouses of cousins are given crucial roles.

When preparing the “infographic”, someone at GW must have begun to worry that “linked to” and “interests in” were getting overworked – readers might begin to wonder: What do these repeated phrases really mean? Clearly, it was time to find another term that sounds like it has something to do with evidence. And so, the “infographic” tells us that 21 of the 27 individuals named in it are “affiliated to” various companies.

The Oxford online dictionary says that “affiliated” means: “(Of a subsidiary group or a person) officially attached or connected to an organization”, and the dictionary gives as examples: “affiliated union members” and “Microsoft and its affiliated companies”.

So, the literal meaning of the words in GW’s diagram is that the listed businesses have control of the 21 listed individuals. How did GW come to write such an absurdity?

It happened because GW wants to give unwary readers (especially journalists) the belief that the 21 people it names have ownership of $201 million in businesses – but if it said directly, “They own businesses worth $201 million”, the lie could quickly be disproved. So GW chose some substitute terms that seemed vague enough to avoid convicting it of an outright lie but still meaningful enough to imply control. Unfortunately for GW but fortunately for explaining what is really going on, it blundered when it chose “affiliated to”.

A concise example of GW’s deliberate sloppiness about its accusations appears on page 13 of the report. It declares: “Here is an overview of some of the international and domestic

companies that Hun Mana has interests in or is affiliated to”. Having interests in something means that you own part of it. Being affiliated to it means it owns you. GW makes the opposing ideas indistinguishable. Rightly so: in GW’s usage, both mean: “We think there’s some kind of connection, but we don’t know what it is and don’t have any evidence”.

The “overview” is also revealing of GW’s methods. All it consists of is the logos of 15 or 16 companies that GW says are Hun Mana’s interest or affiliation. They include IBM Lenovo, Nokia, Procter & Gamble, Honda, Visa and Unilever. Wow! Hun Mana must be as rich as Bill Gates or George Soros! Except that Hun Mana’s interest/affiliation with these international giants consists in two facts. She is part owner of a company that partners with BM Lenovo to distribute Nokia products, and she is the majority shareholder in an advertising agency that has placed ads for these companies. Not quite so impressive as half a page of logos, is it?

Without going into tedious detail, it should also be noted that Hostile Takeover repeatedly disparages members of Hun Sen’s family with accusations that are too imprecise to be tested. A quick list of the words GW uses as a basis for accusations includes “rumoured, alleged, reportedly, accused, considered, widely considered, suspected, said to be”. When the report cites a source for one of these rumours or suspicions, it is usually a biased press release by Human Rights Watch.

To sum up, GW’s report makes accusations for which it lacks evidence, and it therefore substitutes deliberately ambiguous language and/or outright falsehoods. Look again, phrase by phrase, at GW’s “key finding” cited at the start of this article: Hun Sen’s immediate family [WRONG] has registered interests [DELIBERATE AMBIGUITY] in 114 private domestic companies with listed capital [WRONG] of more than US$200 million [WRONG]”.