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
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
"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