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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Reversal on ban leaves one in place

Dyna Seng, editor-in-chief of Radio France Internationale’s (RFI) Khmer Service
Dyna Seng, editor-in-chief of Radio France Internationale’s (RFI) Khmer Service, broadcasts news in Phnom Penh earlier this month. AFP

Reversal on ban leaves one in place

THE Ministry of Information issued a reversal of a highly criticised ban on foreign radio broadcasts for the month-long campaign period on Saturday night, but made no such turnabout on a previously unreported ban blocking election-related broadcasts starting five days before the poll.

According to a notice dated June 21 and obtained by the Post yesterday, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith ordered a stop to “broadcasting and direct relay from all foreign radio stations about the survey or the results of the survey related to the election process for five days before election . . .

[And] stop the broadcasting of all campaign activities within 24 hours before the election and on Election Day.”

Stations that do not follow the directive will be punished “according to the law”, the letter continues.

In June 2012, the government issued a similar – though more narrow – directive to foreign broadcasters, banning them from the airwaves on the eve and day of commune elections, they said in order to maintain a peaceful atmosphere.

The five-day ban was the second of two issued in late June. One, dated June 25 and signed by Secretary of State Ouk Pratna, imposed a 31-day block and drew widespread outrage when news of it was released on Friday. No such condemnation has been proffered over the five-day ban.

On Saturday, amid mounting criticism, along with pressure from the US government, the ministry revoked the 31-day ban.

“The reason that the ministry allows to [broadcast again] is thanks to the requests from those radio station owners,” reads a brief statement from the ministry, which bears no signature.

The reversal only applies to the notice dated June 25 and makes no mention of the June 21 notice.

Kanharith declined to comment, telling the Post that, as an election candidate in Kampong Cham province, he had temporarily left his position and therefore “can’t make any comment on the issue”.

On his Facebook page, however, he was quick to distance himself from the incident, writing yesterday that: “I was not the one who decided the suspension and the reverse of decision.”

Asked why the ministry was not reversing the smaller of the two bans – which he himself had signed into action – Kanharith did not reply.

Several officials at the Ministry of Information, including Pratna, could not be reached for comment.

By not reversing the five-day ban, the government was only paying lip-service amid the backlash from rights groups, the stations and the US government, senior Licadho investigator Am Sam Ath said.

“This is just to mitigate the situation. The ministry still bans for five days before the election and on the election day, so the voters will still not get enough information before deciding to vote for any political party.”

Others called for a broader ban – one that would affect local, frequently government-affiliated outlets as well as foreign.

“If the government insists on suspending those radio stations for five days before the election and election day, they must do the same for all radio stations; not only for some,”political analyst Kem Ley said.

Cambodia had come under intense pressure from the US government in the wake of the 31-day ban and it took barely 24 hours once the news had come out for the ministry to reverse its decision.

According to US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, the embassy had made a case “directly to the government.”

Speaking at a daily press briefing in Washington on Friday, Ventrell said the directive was “a serious infringement on freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process”.

“We are deeply concerned by this action and urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to reconsider this decision,” he continued, adding the media restriction called into question the “credibility of the electoral process”.

Embassy spokesman John Simmons yesterday declined to discuss meetings between the government and embassy, but said they “welcome[d] the Cambodian government’s decision to rescind the ban”.

“We urge the Royal Government to ensure full press freedom, including during the campaign period up to and including the day of the national elections,” he said.

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