Call on the Cambodian Government to Guarantee Freedom of Expression During the Election

21 July 2003
Source: ARTICLE 19, London

ARTICLE 19, Forum-Asia and ADHOC are concerned over the violations of freedom of expression, in particular freedom of the media, that have occurred preceding Cambodia’s third national election, which will be held on 27 July 2003.

The latest incident of repression of freedom of expression and freedom of the media is the threat from Khiev Kagnarith, the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Information, to shut down FM 105 Sambok Khmum Radio (Beehive Radio) on the grounds that the radio had re-broadcast sections of the news from Radio Free Asia and Voice of America (VOA). The threat was conveyed by Seng Sarun, Mr. Kagnarith’s staff, on a visit to Beehive Radio on 7 July 2003. Mr. Kagnarith said that, to re-broadcast news from foreign sources during election time, a media outlet has to apply for a license from the National Election Committee (NEC), even though there is no such regulation in the election regulations nor in NEC procedures.

The above is just one of several attacks on freedom of expression and freedom of the press that have occurred in Cambodia preceding the forthcoming general election. According to an investigation conducted by ADHOC, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) in 24 provinces in Cambodia, during the first five days of the election campaign from 26-30 June, there were various forms of intimidation related to the media and right to expression. People were warned not to listen to Ta Prom, Free Asia and VOA radio broadcasting, and opposition party supporters were prohibited from participating and listening to their chosen party’s election campaign.

In addition to these incidents, we are aware that, as in the last elections, the opposition parties still have not been given sufficient access to the media, particularly the broadcast media. We are encouraged by some improvements in the new media regulations, however, we are still concerned that publishers or broadcasters who run NGO materials will be responsible for any inaccuracies contained within them.

During the 2002 Cambodia Council Commune elections, serious problems were found in television and radio coverage. Radio and television are important in forming political preferences among illiterate voters. COMFREL monitored the coverage of three television stations and three radio stations between January and February 2002 in Phnom Penh, Pursat, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham and Sihanouk Ville. The findings indicated that almost 90 percent of the time allocated for political news covered activities of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). News about Prime Minister Hun Sen and CPP ministers was openly positive, usually putting emphasis on the party’s contribution to Cambodia’s stability, peace and development. The FUNCINPEC party was given less than 10 percent of the airtime, while Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) members were not shown during news programs.

Despite protests by the parties and election monitoring organizations, the NEC failed to intervene and supported a controversial decision to cancel airtime slots specifically allocated for contesting political parties to debate and present their platforms to the people.

Cambodians have the right to obtain balanced information about all matters related to the election: the political parties involved and their platforms and policies, as well as the election process and results. Only informed voters can make an educated choice on election day, and neglecting the importance of this condition will deny the purpose of the election and democratisation. Gaining access to information during a campaign is an extension of citizens’ right to be well informed and hold and express opinions about their governments’ activities generally.

We urge the Cambodian government to guarantee freedom of the media and ensure that they are able to report freely on the election. We also call on the government to guarantee the right of all political opposition parties to access the media and the right of citizens to access information on the election.

For further information, contact Dini Widiastuti, Asia Programme Officer, ARTICLE 19, 33 Islington High St., London N19LH, U.K. tel: +44 207 239 1190, +44 207 278 9292, fax: +44 207 713 1356, e-mail: dini@article19.org, asia@article19.org, Internet: http://www.article19.org; or Somchai Homlaor, Secretary General, Forum-Asia, Bangkok, tel: +66 2 276 9846, +66 2 276 9847; or Theavy Mom, Assistant President, ADHOC, Phnom Penh, tel: +855 23 218653 / 98240, e-mail: adhoc@forum.org.kh