Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - NEC threatens legal action over story suggesting voters apathetic after CNRP dissolution

NEC threatens legal action over story suggesting voters apathetic after CNRP dissolution

The exterior of the headquarters of the National Election Committee in Phnom Penh.
The exterior of the headquarters of the National Election Committee in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

NEC threatens legal action over story suggesting voters apathetic after CNRP dissolution

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.

MOST VIEWED

  • US imposes sanctions on Oknha Pheap and Kun Kim

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation expressed strong dismay on Monday over the designation of Cambodian tycoon Oknha Try Pheap and General Kun Kim under the US’ Global Magnitsky Act. “It is very disturbing when the public figures of a country become the

  • Mother, daughter killed in hotel fire

    The bodies of a mother and daughter were found locked in an embrace after they were killed in a hotel fire in Phnom Penh at around 3:30am on Wednesday at the Phkar Chhouk Tep 2 Hotel and Restaurant in Phsar Doeum Kor commune, in the capital’

  • EBA withdrawal a destruction of EU achievements, PM says

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said the EU’s possible suspension of its Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement amounted to a destruction of its achievements in the Kingdom and the demise of the opposition group. Hun Sen made the remarks while addressing more than 6,700 students during

  • US told to refrain from interfering in Sokha case

    Senior Cambodian officials said on Thursday that the US can monitor Kem Sokha’s trial as it wishes but would not be allowed to interfere in court procedures. The point was made in response to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments on Wednesday

  • Europe expected to consider EBA efforts, impact

    The government said it expects the European Commission to consider its efforts to comply with the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) regulations and the impact on one million workers should access to the agreement be suspended in February. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

  • Sri Lanka’s LOLC Holdings plans to sell Cambodian unit

    LOLC Holdings Plc, Sri Lanka’s second-largest publicly traded company by revenue, plans to sell its 70 per cent stake in Prasac Microfinance Institution Ltd, which also counts Hong Kong’s Bank of East Asia Ltd. as a shareholder, LOLC deputy chairman Ishara Nanayakkara said. Nanayakkara