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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Media access one of the flashpoints of poll boycott threat

Media access one of the flashpoints of poll boycott threat

Opposition parties have flagged CPP dominance of the electronic media as one of the

reasons for their boycott threat of July 26 elections. Without two months' worth

of fair media access prior to any election date, the four-party National United Front

says it will refuse to participate.

"The CPP and its allies control all six television stations and some ten radio

stations," the NUF - comprising Funcinpec, the Son Sann Party, the Sam Rainsy

Party and the Cambodian Neutral Party - alleged in its May 18 boycott announcement.

Media groups, election watchdogs, diplomats, NGOs, the UN human rights envoy and

even the King have also complained that media access is not equitable.

The UN is watching the media situation closely as an indicator of the government's

commitment to free and fair elections, according to rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg.

"The real test is the general possibility for political contenders to reach

out," he said in a May 4 interview.

He added that at present, the government fails the test with regard to electronic

media - which is crucial for reaching Cambodia's many illiterate and rural voters.

"They [the government] also need to discuss the distribution of frequencies.

The present situation is not satisfactory. My appeal to the government is to show

generosity to others to see to it that there's a genuine equality here ... They should

deal with this now."

At Post press time, the National Election Committee was in the midst of discussions

on how to provide equitable campaign-period media access. The NUF is demanding that

"licenses and all necessary permission must be provided such that opposition

parties have at least two months in advance of the elections in which they are free

to broadcast in theory and in practice."

Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith proposed that four opposition

parties could share one radio frequency.

"If they [the NUF] form a union to work together, why don't they work together

for the radio station? They have to use it together for the time being," Kanharith

said. Of the NUF members, only the Son Sann Party has access to a radio frequency.

Keat Sukun, a senior Son Sann Party member, said: "We had requested a 10 kilowatt

radio station, but the ministry agreed to provide us 3 kilowatts. But in fact, only

500 watts was given to us for installation."

This power, he lamented, can only broadcast in the vicinity of Phnom Penh. But he

said a small station is better than no station at all.

Funcinpec - which lost its radio and TV premises and equipment during July's fighting

- and the Sam Rainsy Party have repeatedly requested radio and TV access, but these

have not been acted upon by the Ministry.

Funcinpec officials remain optimistic about their chances of getting at least the

radio station back again, while Sam Rainsy has been actively pursing other campaign

options. He has made numerous provincial visits in recent weeks.

"I have no TV or radio [station], but ideas have legs," he said. "You

have to speak convincingly. We are using word of mouth and small leaflets."

Officials from both Funcinpec and SRP hinted that if worst came to worst, sharing

the Son Sann station might be a viable option.

Kanharith has said that there are not enough available FM radio frequencies to give

one to all 39 election contenders that might request one. He has said that all the

slots had been assigned in the expectation of a future system of provincial stations.

Election watchdogs dispute this, noting that frequencies could double up as long

as the signals did not overlap.

Other parties, including Loy Sim Chheang's Sangkum Thmei and Pen Sovann's National

Sustaining Party, say they are content to wait and see what system the NEC will set

up for media access during the official campaign period (the last 30 days before

election day).

At Post press time, the NEC was discussing whether campaign broadcasts should

be limited to state-run media or if parties should also be able to buy additional

time on private stations, according to media officer Leng Sochea.

Technical problems of how to assign "fair" broadcast time (considering

both the amount of time allotted, and the hour of broadcast) to 39 parties, with

differing membership sizes and political clout, were also being discussed.

Hammarberg noted that weighted systems - giving priority to those parties with large

membership lists and/or representation in parliament - are used by other countries.

Yet such systems pose problems in Cambodia: parties trade accusations of padded membership

lists, and widespread party defections would make the parliamentary representation

condition contentious.

But many feel that even if perfectly equal access were somehow achieved during the

campaign period, it might be of neglible value given CPP's dominance in the electronic

media until then.

Even the King has noted as much. "Our information system is not independent,

not democratic, not neutral, not fair," Sihanouk wrote in his monthly bulletin.

Asked if the visibility of CPP officials/candidates on the nightly news might contribute

to an unequal playing field, one senior CPP member suggested that other government

officials needed to keep a higher profile. "The government officials running

from the CPP are much more active than the others," said Svay Sitha.

Yet observers pointed to the complete lack of local TV coverage of Prince Ranariddh's

return from self-exile - the top story on CNN and other world broadcasts that day

- was indicative of biased coverage.

"They [opposition parties] can have an equitable 30 days, but, whoopee,"

scoffed one diplomatic source, adding that although better than nothing, it would

be too little, too late. "The point is, it doesn't really matter now."

CPP's firm grip on programming has also affected non-governmental organizations.

Even for non-partisan information such as voter education programs, NGO representatives

say their broadcast times have been cut, the cost for airtime hiked, and scrutiny

of their programs heightened on state-run TVK.

One NGO has canceled its voter-education series because the allotted time was so

abbreviated, while another admits to practicing self-censorship - not airing interviews,

even on non-political subjects, with leading opposition figures like Rainsy.

"Election related activities from NGOs are not a priority for [the government],"

said Center for Social Development vice-director Chea Vannath.

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that it was premature to complain about equitable

access because the electoral campaign has not yet started. "During the electoral

compaign period, as long as there is not equal opportunity for all parties, they

can say so, but now it is not the time yet," he said.

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