Reporters and Ministry of Information officials were yesterday schooled in the intricacies of the controversial Law on Political Parties – which could soon be used to dissolve the opposition – with Minister Khieu Kanharith warning journalists not to misreport the issue and risk legal repercussions.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has in the past five weeks seen its president, Kem Sokha, charged with “treason”. As a result, the party is now facing two complaints from the Cambodian Youth Party and Funcinpec calling for its dissolution, based on the contentious legislation.
Yesterday’s training, conducted by Interior Ministry Administration Department Director Prak Sam Oeun, did not explicitly mention the CNRP, but emphasised articles of the law that dealt with parties being prohibited from accepting foreign funds, support or assistance – accusations that have been levelled at Sokha.
But the key point of the training, evidently, was to ensure the media accurately reports the government’s narrative.
“The interpretation [of the law] can make chaos in society,” Sam Oeun said. “It is necessary that media must listen to the context – that this is strictly implementation of the law.”
The Law on Political Parties has been amended twice already this year, both times taking aim at former opposition leader Sam Rainsy. While the first set of changes disallowed criminally convicted individuals from leading a party, the second round of amendments made it illegal for parties to associate, conspire or use images of convicted individuals, among other changes.
Rainsy has been convicted in a number of politically tinged cases, and was not only forced out of the CNRP, but off of its billboards, thanks to the changes.
The instructions to journalists also come in the wake of a recent crackdown on independent media organisations that has resulted in the shuttering of the Cambodia Daily newspaper and of US-funded Radio Free Asia, and the closure of numerous local independent radio broadcasters carrying Voice of America and CNRP programming.
Information Minister Kanharith said the workshop was intended to ensure journalists and information officials were well aware of the recent changes to the law and that reporters did not misinterpret the context of such stories.
“For example when a lawmaker says something, it is OK [to quote them], but when we take his words we can make mistakes. Therefore we need to know what is legal or illegal,” he said.
While Kanharith did not suggest monitoring the media, Sar Sina, head of Tbong Khmum’s provincial information department, said he would make sure reporters were not out of line.
“I will instruct the [TV] anchors to understand about this when they report on it and ask them not to make reports that will impact the party,” he said, making an oblique reference to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Political commentator Meas Nee said it was surprising that any additional training was required on the Political Parties Law, given that it had been widely covered in the media, adding that the training was a clear attempt to put journalists on alert.
“Their intention is to make people chant from one to another that, for example, when you commit a wrong, you will be punished,” he said.
However, he added, propagation of the government line would ultimately fail because of decreasing trust in CPP-aligned media outlets.