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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Private TV, radio gagged by NEC media guidelines

Private TV, radio gagged by NEC media guidelines

THE CPP-friendly National Election Commission will have the right to censor all media

ahead of the July 26 elections, has banned all "politically biased" coverage

or advertising from private TV and radio stations and will only guarantee parties

one five-minute broadcast per day during the tight 30-day electoral campaign, according

to widely criticized new broadcasting guidelines.

The guidelines, signed by NEC chairman Chheng Phon on May 21, appear to have cemented

the government's monopoly on the electronic media, show an increasing desire to crackdown

on opposition in the printed press, and are a sign that former communists in the

CPP are going back to their old repressive ways, according to opposition politicians

and electoral observers.

"[It appears] the National Electoral Commission is taking control of the media.

They are basically going to nationalize all the newspapers during the election period,"

said one electoral observer.

"If one were to take this document very seriously, there would be a lot of questions."

Funcinpec, the party that won the 1993 UN-sponsored election with 45% of the vote

and which has had little say in this year's electoral preparations, appears to guaranteed

a total of 150 minutes of television and radio broadcasting time during the entire

campaign period.

Parties with a substantial support base such as Funcinpec, the Sam Rainsy Party and

the CPP will be given equal media time with smaller parties like the Bee Hive Party

of radio station owner Mom Sonando, the Khmer Children's Party and the rest of the

39 registered political parties, most of whom are unlikely to win even 1% of the

vote and many of whom are affiliated with the CPP.

The opposition has long complained they need stations of their own, not only to campaign,

but to counter what they say are CPP-biased news reports on TV and radio with news

reports of their own.

But the NEC, which is widely seen as CPP-dominated, will even censor "biased"

political content from privately-owned radio, TV and newspaper, according to the

guidelines.

"All radio, TV, cable TV stations and printed media who are running private

businesses or in the name of any political party shall absolutely stop either direct

or indirect political activities aimed at serving any individual, groups or parties

except when a proposal is raised by the NEC," the guidelines state.

"The private stations must be quiet... [or] it is not fair to the poorer parties,"

explained the deputy director general at the Information Ministry, Leng Sochea, who

is also on the media subcommittee of the NEC.

Are private stations allowed to broadcast their normal news programs?

"Everything is okay except biased information. The NEC... will focus on the

electric and printed media. We have a lot of work to do. We did and we do everything

according to the election law," he said.

Does that mean you will effectively censor news content if it appears biased, as

the guidelines appear to imply? "We will."

Those who are found guilty of violating the NEC's guidelines will face fines of up

to 10 million riel.

Even the five-minute spots, which political parties are supposed to produce for daily

viewing, must be submitted to the NEC "to be checked for fairness" before

they are run in rotation during the June 25-to-July 24 campaign.

The electoral observer pointed out that unless changes are made to the guidelines,

all political spots will be run between 8am and 7pm, outside prime viewing hours.

Despite opposition calls for at least two months' worth of reasonable media access

before the election, the guidelines appear to guarantee access only for the 30-day

official campaign period.

The opposition, which has long made media access a main focus of their threat to

boycott the July 26 election date, was quick to lash out at the decision.

"This is very ridiculous," said Funcinpec Assembly member Ahmad Yahya.

"We have a lot of private TV. Let them do what they want. If they want to control

[the media] it is not a democracy. It is socialism or communism. I am not surprised.

They held a coup d'état. It is to control things."

Opposition politician Sam Rainsy - who regularly runs about even with Second Prime

Minister Hun Sen in opinion polls conducted by an organization seen as close to Rainsy

- said he wants more from the NEC.

"I am not satisfied. I want my radio and TV," said Rainsy, who has been

attempting to obtain his own radio station for nearly two years. "It is their

approach which is biased."

Information Minister Ieng Mouly, an electoral ally of Hun Sen, promised in late 1996

that elections would have UNTAC-style media freedom, but he has since moved to the

background as CPP-loyalists in the ministry have stepped up to higher-profile roles

in the run-up to elections.

This election's media component will be far from UNTAC's, electoral observers and

opposition politicians say.

"They appear to have gone back to pre-UNTAC," said the electoral observer.

"This is not a healthy thing. I don't see any way they can actually enforce

this unless they want to close or confiscate opposition newspapers, who won't want

to listen to the NEC... Second, there is the question of whether the NEC has the

will to stop [CPP-affiliated] Apsara television and other stations from engaging

in business as usual. If Apsara doesn't agree it is impossible."

The observer said, however, that a lack of control on privately-owned stations will

also benefit the CPP, as nearly every radio and television station is either afraid

to run anything that might upset those in power or is seen as close to the CPP.

"If they remain silent, there is still going to be a bias in favor of whoever

controls newscasts," the observer said, adding that the media issue can only

be reconciled at this late point if the election is delayed to grant popular parties

long term equal access to the media.

"[But] it is too late for that. The NEC really has nothing but bad choices to

make."

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