It was only one day before they published their exposé that they managed to obtain a final critical piece of evidence to substantiate their year-long investigations of the crazy rich in Cambodia, who also happen to be closely affiliated with the current longest-serving prime minister, Hun Sen.
But the blood, sweat and tears of Reuters special correspondents Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall eventually reaped enormous rewards in ways they could not imagine – to strip Hun Sen’s associates of their European citizenship.
While they declined to further elaborate on how they secured the documentation, Ms Clare Baldwin told The IAS Gazette in a telephone interview from Hong Kong last November that the final piece of evidence was a “visa blacklist”, which the US State Department created to ban those who undermine democracy from travelling to the States unless they are on official business.
“That (US visa blacklist) was a tricky one (to obtain),” she said.
The national police chief, Neth Savoeun, the prime minister’s niece, Hun Kimleng, and their three children were included in the visa blacklist in 2017.
“I think that was something that was really bothering me because I knew we could get it, and it was just a matter of time. But I did not know if we would get it before we had to publish.”
Titled Khmer Riche, the report, which was published by Reuters in October last year, details the story of how the Cambodian elites are amassing huge amounts of foreign assets to seek and buy European citizenship through Cyprus – an island country in the Eastern Mediterranean – via its Cyprus Investment Program, which grants full Cypriot citizenship to wealthy individuals who invest at least €2 million (S$3 million).
While the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner did not necessarily set out with a particular goal to achieve with the publishing of the article, Mr Marshall told the Gazette in a phone interview from London: “If I have any hope for it, it would be just to shine a light on a subject that is important.”
After years of speculations and hearsay, the phenomenon, which contradicts Hun Sen’s portrayal of himself as a humble leader who “eats grass with the Cambodian people”, is an intriguing one.
“(But) what is really amazing about this story is that we have shown how that is not true,” said Ms Baldwin.
“Our investigation showed how his family members and his closest business and political associates…live very lavish lifestyles, and have tens of millions of dollars of overseas assets, and (even) purchased foreign citizenship.”
While his associates such as Hun Kimleng and her family continue to lead extravagant lifestyles both at home and abroad, Hun Sen has on several occasions sought to ban dual citizenship for those who hold political leadership positions – especially vis-à-vis presidents of opposition political parties – calling the practice of buying foreign citizenship as “unpatriotic”.
Having to cross country borders and continents, the 36-year-old correspondent described the investigation process as a non-linear but “constant conversation”.
“You get a tip at one place, and then you go to do some research at another place.
“Then, a tip (goes) there, and it bounces back. So, the best way to think about it is a conversation.”
The duo shared the workload by covering different geographical areas concurrently.
Mr Marshall would do most of the on-the-ground reporting in Cyprus, while Ms Baldwin took on that responsibility in Phnom Penh.
They would also share the reporting in London and do further online research together.
Explaining that this was an issue that has been speculated and rumoured by many, 53-year-old Mr Marshall said what made their story stand out was that they were the first to obtain actual evidence and documentation of this occurrence, proving the significant wealth as well as the second passports that Hun Sen’s family and cronies held.
Despite not having faced any form of danger during this operation, the veteran reporter emphasised that practising “good security hygiene” is important.
“We needed to be very meticulous in keeping all documents safe and backed up well.”
Moreover, with such a huge amount of information coming in all the time, Ms Baldwin added that she would organise every little detail of information that she received in spreadsheets.
“What did not seem important at the time might turn out to be the key piece of information that links everything together.”
On top of that, Ms Baldwin, who constantly seeks to discover new ways of reporting and combining the different mediums, decided to utilise social media as one of her reporting tools.
For instance, she took photos from the Instagram profiles of Hun Sen’s relatives – Vichhuna Neth, Hun Panaboth and Hun Chantha – to show how the family had boasted about their crazy rich lifestyles online.
Describing their partnership as a “very profitable one”, Mr Marshall, who perceives the both of them as a bridge to the story because of the accessibility to information as compared to their local counterparts, said: “In many ways, this (Khmer Riche article) is just an extension of the partnership that is already kind of well-oiled.
“We (also) know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and what we’re best at. That was very useful when we came to approach a story.”
Their biggest achievement thus far?
To successfully elicit a response from the Ministry of Interior of Cyprus, who will be stripping 26 foreign investors – including eight Cambodians – of their “golden passports”.
Its interior minister, Constantinos Petrides, said authorities would also investigate all investors who were granted Cypriot citizenship before 2018, which was the year when tougher eligibility criteria were put in place.
Mr Petrides said “mistakes” had been made in processing some citizenship requests.
“It was a mistake not to have criteria, for instance, for high-risk persons.”
In July last year, the country introduced 11 categories of “high-risk individuals excluded from applying”, added Mr Petrides.
One category is “politically exposed persons (PEPs)” – that is, any holder of public office. PEPs are considered a corruption risk because of their prominence and influence.
Cyprus also now excludes anyone previously convicted or under investigation in their own country, anyone linked to an illegal entity, or anyone under international sanctions.
But when asked if Hun Sen would outlaw the practice of purchasing foreign citizenship in Cambodia, Ms Baldwin remarked: “I think it would be a difficult thing for him to do.
“He could reopen that process, but he would have the problem of a bunch of people that are close to him getting affected. So, I do not know if he would go ahead with the case.”