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NGOs urge CNRP to stay firm

Deputy Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha
Deputy Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha talks to members of the Electoral Reform Alliance earlier this week. CNRP

NGOs urge CNRP to stay firm

Civil society leaders have lobbied the opposition party to quash provisions – reportedly being negotiated at election reform talks with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – that would seek to restrict the freedom of NGOs to speak out during election campaigns.

On Wednesday, representatives from a coalition of groups called the Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA) met with Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy leader Kem Sokha and several party officials taking part in negotiations with the CPP over election law changes, said Koul Panha, executive director at elections watchdog Comfrel.

The ERA presented seven key recommendations for the modified election law, he said, including the scrapping of reported provisions that would ban NGOs from making statements deemed “insulting” to politicians or parties in the lead-up to polls.

Following 2013’s disputed election, the CPP-led government accused the ERA of conspiring with the CNRP to deliberately mislead the public regarding alleged election irregularities after it released a damning post-election report.

Since it emerged last week that provisions to restrict NGOs were being considered at ongoing negotiations, the parties have been blasted for encroaching on freedom of expression. The CNRP, in particular, has been condemned for what many perceived as capitulation to the ruling party.

“We tried to persuade him [Sokha] that this is something wrong if you put it in the election law and that we are very concerned that it is something that violates the political rights of NGOs,” Panha said yesterday.

“Why discriminate? Why target NGOs? . . . Independence and [being] non-partisan is in our code of conduct.”

In the meeting, the ERA also called for the modified election law to stipulate that the NEC guarantee parties equal access to public spaces for campaigning, while also enforcing neglected aspects of the political party law, such as state financing for parties, Panha said.

Senior opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, who was at Wednesday’s meeting, said yesterday that her party wished to clarify that it did not support any new election law provisions that would seek to restrict NGOs’ freedom of expression, chalking up reports asserting such as “misunderstandings”.

“CNRP made it clear to ERA its position, which is that we stand firm to protect the spirit, the principle of free and fair elections, which includes the role of civil society and NGOs,” she said. “The CNRP has no intention whatsoever to consider any criminal provisions or [such] articles in the electoral law.”

Sochua added that, specifically, her party wouldn’t support an article banning NGO statements deemed “insulting”.

CPP negotiators could not be reached.