The National Election Committee hit back at perceived bad press over the weekend, reminding journalists that they can face criminal charges for “prejudice” after an article from Radio Free Asia (RFA) claimed voters are disinterested following the dissolution of the country’s main opposition.
In November, the Supreme Court, at the government’s behest, ruled to dissolve Cambodia’s only viable opposition party – the Cambodia National Rescue Party – with the international community labelling Cambodia a “one-party dictatorship” in response.
The RFA article, by Mao Sotheany, pointed out that voter registration numbers were low, and quoted a local Phnom Penh vendor who said she did not bother registering because of the dissolution of the CNRP. On Saturday, the NEC responded, claiming that news outlets “inserting your own opinion or making prejudice” was outlawed.
“As a professional journalist, [you] should not report news without base, or just hear a rumour and report it. Moreover, NEC has a code of ethics for the media during the election process,” the statement reads.
Although the NEC statement does not name RFA directly, it responds to specific points from the article, and government mouthpiece Fresh News noted the statement was a reaction to RFA.
“NEC sees that such reporting has the intention to take civil society and the citizens hostage to your article. It has the intention to make the public confused, which leads to distrust of the election,” the statement continues, adding that the “common sense of the people” will see through the allegedly misleading article.
“Any individual is forbidden from [intentionally misleading the public] in the law about the national elections in Article 142, and could be fined between 5 million to 20 million riel [about $1,250 to $5,000], not including other criminal punishment,” the reaction concludes.
The article forbids sowing “confusion resulting in the loss of confidence in the election”.
RFA is funded by the US government – which ruling party officials have accused of seeking to foment “revolution” – and Sotheany is based in America. The broadcaster shuttered its Cambodia operations following a government crackdown that saw dozens of frequencies carrying its programming summarily shut down earlier this year. Two of its former reporters were also arrested and charged with “espionage”.
“What the media raised did not reflect with the real situation . . . What they said was just to make confusion . . . The NEC cannot accept it,” NEC Deputy Secretary-General Som Sorida said yesterday.
When asked if the NEC would pursue charges, Sorida said, “we will see”.
“Such comments are politically motivated rather than technical,” he added.
Sorida also refused to identify the news article he was referring to. “We don’t want to say the name of the media because we want to say it in general. If we name that news media, it seems that NEC gives high value to that media,” he said.
Following the dissolution of the CNRP, three members of the NEC resigned in protest. They were replaced by two members nominated by minor parties, and one with ties to the ruling party, tipping the nominally independent body in favour of the government.
The NEC also issued a “clarification”, published in English and Khmer on Thursday, calling the election body a “Supreme Institution for the Nation and Cambodian People”.
The statement rejected the notion that the 2018 election would be illegitimate without the CNRP, as numerous observers have suggested.
“According to the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly, none of the article stipulates that the election shall have engagement from the opposition party,” the document reads.
Sam Kuntheamy, director of election watchdog Nicfec, was quoted extensively in the RFA article. He said he was unaware of the NEC’s reaction, but argued that the RFA article was fair.
“This is the right of journalists – they release information based on their research,” Kuntheamy said, adding that the NEC can’t blame journalists for publishing interviews.
Kuntheamy maintained that the NEC has no authority to bring criminal charges, and accused the NEC of “threatening and intimidation”.
“I see that the NEC is more threatening, they think they’re more powerful than before,” he said, adding that the body’s new “quick reaction unit” seems to exist specifically to intimidate journalists.
Kuntheamy said the NEC also seems to be especially sensitive to criticism because the criticism, in this case, is true, but noted that he and others only criticise the NEC to strengthen it. “We want to see the NEC independent. We just want free and fair elections,” he said.
Yoeurng Sotheara, legal expert at election monitor Comfrel, said the NEC attacks on RFA were part of an attempt at “systematic control”.
Calling it a “very serious case” and “not a good idea”, Sotheara said “the court grants rights and freedoms of expression and freedom of press”. “The NEC, whatever its composition, whatever its form, has to be open-minded,” he said.
Sotheara also said the election body had become more sensitive as a result of insecurity. “They are not preserving the peace, but making people more unhappy,” he said. “We have witnessed the NEC has become very stringent towards criticism, very restrictive . . . It’s not good for a body that should be earning the trust of the people”.
RFA did not respond to requests for comment, and the US Embassy declined to comment.