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Telling it like it is

Telling it like it is

The NEC rules on news media

The new media guidelines issued recently by the National Election Committee (NEC)

have received a predictably mixed response. The rules, which were signed by NEC chairman

Im Suosdey on April 24, are contained in the NEC provisions to Chapter 7 of the Electoral

Law. Others appear in a 'Guidelines to Media' Annex to those provisions.

The country's widespread illiteracy means most people get their information from

TV and radio broadcasts. That made access to media a critical issue in past elections,

and it will likely be as important this time.

Although there are regulations to cover privately-owned media, the NEC's rules apply

mainly to state-owned media - which amounts to one television station and two radio


The state-owned media was heavily criticized before and after the 1998 general election

as being biased towards the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Similar complaints

were made during the February 2002 local elections.

A UN report that analyzed state TV and radio newscasts in May 1998 - three months

before the last general election - found the CPP garnered by far the majority of

the coverage. In May 1998, CPP officials featured 448 times in the electronic media.

Those from its coalition partner Funcinpec and the opposition SRP had 14 reports

between them. All were negative, except for those that featured the King.

Thomas Hammarberg, who was at the time the UN special representative for human rights,

told reporters in 1998 that the imbalance was because media licenses were granted

on a politically partial basis.

The structure of the country's broadcast media has not changed much since: in 1998,

eleven of the twelve radio stations were CPP-aligned, as were all six TV stations.

Today the sole state-owned TV station is TVK (as opposed to those which are nominally

independent of state control but still affiliated to the ruling party). There are

also two state-owned radio stations, one broadcasting on FM and one on AM. Municipal

TV and radio stations are not regarded as state-owned.

Although none of the parties technically owns broadcast media, the other six TV channels

and most of the radio stations are considered pro-CPP. Ta Prohm radio on FM is aligned

with Funcinpec; Beehive FM is considered pro-SRP.

The SRP has long been had its requests for a radio or a TV station license turned

down with the excuse that there are no further frequencies available. The reality,

says the opposition, is that the CPP "is trying to gag us".

What the rules mean

The NEC's ruling covers four categories (see box top right), which are divided between

state media and private media. The obligation on state TV and radio - a "first"

for Cambodia, says the NEC's Suosdey - is to give 'equitable coverage' in its news

broadcasts during the 30-day election campaign, which runs from June 26 to July 25.

The term 'equitable coverage' is not the same as 'equal coverage', and that difference

is key to understanding what the regulations require.

'Equitable coverage' allocates broadcast time under a formula that will take into

account the party's historical showing, the number of votes won at the last election

and the number of seats it holds in the National Assembly.

Clearly the CPP will do best from this: under the equitable system it will probably

get 40 percent of the coverage. The rest will be divided between Funcinpec and the

SRP, with a small amount left for the other registered parties. The final division

between the parties is still to be decided.

'Equal coverage' means just that: the same amount of time in a broadcast for each

registered party. Around 20 parties are likely to contest the July 27 election, with

the final list of parties and candidates announced on June 18, six days before campaigning


The NEC ruling means that all televised and radio debates on both state and private

broadcast media must conform with the 'equal coverage' principle from June 18; the

NEC will begin broadcasting its own programs on the various parties, also using the

system of 'equal coverage' from June 26.

The Minister of Information, Funcinpec's Lu Laysreng, says the rules are an improvement.

"This is a step forward from past elections when the CPP had an overwhelming

advantage over other parties, as everyone knows," he says. "This time we

have made a concerted effort for change, such as helping smaller parties gain access

to private TV."

Changing the mindset of state-owned media will require some work. The Post understands

that two international organizations are in discussions for permission to provide

technical assistance, staff and equipment to TVK and the two radio stations to help

them meet their obligations. Quite what conditions will be imposed on that assistance

is not yet clear.

The director-general of TVK, Mao Ayuth, says his station will broadcast every item

the NEC approves. He is mystified as to why TVK is accused of bias towards the CPP,

saying it broadcasts the work of government, not individual political parties.

"When I broadcast the activities of government officials inaugurating bridges,

pagodas, roads and schools, I am accused of political bias," he says. "I

don't know how we will cover these things now."

A key provision in the guidelines is that state media such as TVK must draw a distinction

when covering the official duties of government officials and their party political

activities. State media personnel must also refrain from exhibiting any political

bias when covering election stories.

The guidelines, which are contained in the Annex and consequently are enforceable

under the law, dictate coverage of each stage of the election process, not just the

campaigning period. As one seasoned media observer says: "These guidelines are

simply good journalistic practice that should be observed 365 days a year."

Will it help?

As Suosdey said, the regulations regarding 'equitable coverage' for state broadcasters

are a first. In the past, state media have mainly ignored Funcinpec and disregarded

the opposition and smaller parties in their coverage.

But not everyone is convinced it will work in practice. Mar Sophal, who is the monitoring

coordinator for Comfrel, an election monitoring NGO, says his observations show just

how much work is required to ensure balanced coverage.

The NGO monitored TVK's broadcasts between February 1 and May 5. It found that Hun

Sen received 50 hours coverage in speeches he made, all of which related to CPP campaigning.

Funcinpec's Prince Norodom Ranariddh had ten hours. Other parties received no coverage.

"That means Hun Sen alone took 90 percent of the time for his speeches on TVK

during a period of three months and five days," says Sophal, "while Ranariddh

took only 10 percent."

It is figures like these that leave many parties skeptical of the supposed benefits

of some of the rules. Hang Dara, the president of one of the smaller parties, the

Hang Dara Democracy Movement, is not convinced the rules will help his chances.

"As my party is small and poor, I am not overly concerned about access to the

media because all the private television and radio stations have long been biased

towards the ruling party," says Dara. "The CPP, Funcinpec and the SRP all

have their own media, so even if we wanted to buy airtime from some private media,

we still cannot compete with them."

Suosdey says political advertising on private media is merely an extension of any

party's campaign strategy, in much the same way as one might choose to purchase T-shirts

or caps.

"It is simply an opportunity of access which is offered to the parties. They

are free to use this time or not," Suosdey says. "That's their choice,

according to their campaign strategies."

Dara's bleak assessment is likely shared by most of the poorer parties. But Serey

Kosal, the deputy secretary-general of Funcinpec, is hopeful. He says the royalist

party has some confidence in the regulations contained in Chapter 7, but warns that

the rules on their own are not enough - they need to be properly implemented.

"The NEC's regulations are good in concept, but the body must be responsible

for ensuring neutrality in practice," says Kosal. "The NEC must also consider

carefully the costs in buying time from private media, because if the price is too

high, then even the so-called big political parties like Funcinpec will be unable

to afford it."


The question of implementation and enforcement of the rules is, as Kosal points out,

key to how effectively they will work. Funcinpec's under-secretary of state at the

Ministry of Information, Aun Chan Syavouth, says the new rules reflect the ministry's

attempts to improve coverage of the election. But he is not clear just how enforcement

will work.

Although the new rules are being touted as fair by the NEC, Syavouth admits the current

media situation is not just, given the CPP's dominance. There is political will to

ensure fair media coverage, he says, but the ministry's ability to enforce the rules

is limited.

"The truth is that this is a step forward from past elections when the CPP had

an overwhelming advantage over other parties through its control of media broadcasts,"

he says.

"I am not certain of the precise role the ministry will have with broadcasters,

but [Minister Lu Laysreng] has already discussed this with the Cambodian Television

Association," Sya-vouth continues. "But there are no penalties we can take

against those media which do not follow the new NEC rules."

Syavouth says it will not be easy for the ministry to ensure the media live up to

their obligation to be impartial "because in Cambodia the bigger and smaller

parties have different degrees of power". But, he points out, Hun Sen has "given

the green light" for television to broadcast the political activities of the

various parties.

For its part, the CPP says it will follow the NEC's regulations.

"My party will respect the election law and the regulations issued by the NEC,"

says one senior CPP member who is involved with the party's campaign and did not

want to be named. "Whether we wanted this or not, it has been discussed several

times between the NEC and the political parties [and we have agreed to it]."

But the opposition SRP was scathing about the new rules. Election spokesman Senator

Ou Bun Long says they are simply a cloak behind which the CPP can retain power.

"There are many points in the media rules with which I am not satisfied,"

he says.

"For example, [under its equal access ruling] the NEC turned down the initiative

of some NGOs and the international community that wanted to have roundtable discussions

on radio and TV with only a few political parties," says Bun Long.

He also finds fault with the practical impact of the 'equitable coverage' ruling,

which will likely allow the SRP around five minutes a day on TVK's sole news bulletin,

and probably a similar amount on the two state-owned radio stations.

"To have five minutes on TV and radio each day is not enough for us - how can

we use only five minutes to explain our political platform so people can understand

it?" Bun Long asks. "The NEC has only established these rules to make themselves

look good. Giving us five minutes is nonsense."

But as the NEC points out, such a system is used in other countries. Suosdey, says

the 'equitable' system is "a normal way of working for many journalists around

the globe".

As for the ruling on equal time - and pricing such media time - Bun Long feels this

is simply a measure to ensure power is retained for the ruling party. Additionally,

he says, the NEC has not yet determined how the pricing mechanism will work.

In short, he is not optimistic that the current state of media ownership will allow

the SRP to gain much access to the private media.

Although each non-state media and radio station says it is private, Bun Long says

the reality is that, almost without exception, each has "a share of 50 percent

plus one for the CPP. On every radio and TV broadcast, all you get to see is the

CPP's activities."

"The NEC and CPP are the same," he says. "They have taken every measure

to interrupt the opposition by blocking all information on media broadcasts that

would allow us to access the people."





What the rules mean for NGOs

In principle the private media don't have many obligations, since the regulations

refer mainly to access to state-owned media. However NGOs, for example, are allowed

to fund and broadcast political debates on private TV or radio.

Voter education spots and material produced by NGOs do not require the NEC's approval,

although NGOs may forward their material to the NEC's commission for review. That

assessment will be completed within 72 hours.

Im Suosdey, NEC secretary-general, says the advantage to NGOs is that they do not

then need to worry about the "validity and accuracy of their materials"

for which they are otherwise liable under the electoral law.

"This commission may produce a letter of approval if the NGOs ask for it, but

... no visa or approval is needed before disseminating or broadcasting a voter education

message," says Suosdey. "NGOs that do not want to have their voter education

materials reviewed by the NEC are entirely free to publish or broadcast these materials

anyway, but they remain responsible for the content."

But that is not the case for round-table debates that are broadcast on or after June

18. All of these must be approved first by the NEC, which will check them for equality

between the parties, for abusive language, and the like.

What if one party decides not to participate in a debate - does that nullify the

program on the basis that the equal access provision is not met? The answer is not

clear, but going by the spirit of the regulations, says one seasoned media observer,

an invite should be sufficient. This point will be clarified ahead of the campaign




Four types of access to media

The NEC regulations cover four types of access that will allow parties to express

their views through the media:

ï First: Equal access programs produced by the NEC to be broadcast on state

TV and radio. This was also done in the run-up to the 1998 election. These NEC productions

will run during the 30-day campaign period and provide an equal amount of time to

each registered party that requests such assistance.

For the first 15 days, the NEC programs will be spots that allow the parties to broadcast

their platforms; for the remaining 15 days, they will take the format of round-table

discussions. State-run media will provide such access free of charge.

ï Second: Daily news coverage on state radio and TV, again during the campaigning

period. This will be done on an equitable basis, which means the big three parties

will have by far the most coverage.

Article 16 of the Annex states that state media must be impartial, and ensure "just

and balanced coverage based on equitable principles" for all registered parties.

What appears likely to happen, based on that article and discussions within the NEC,

is that around 15 minutes will be allocated to election coverage in TVK's daily half-hour

news broadcast.

Precisely how the two state-owned radio stations will deal with this is unclear,

but they will be expected to hold to the same equitable principle. That could mean

a ten minute broadcast on one of their half-dozen daily news bulletins.

ï Third: Allowing all registered parties to buy time on private radio, TV

and print media. The NEC will act as a broker to ensure all parties have equal opportunity

for access. Some NGOs and parties wanted the NEC to pay and ensure they all had equal

time, but donors didn't agree to fund that suggestion and the NEC doesn't have the


The NEC then decided that private media that allows party political advertising must

allow all parties to buy air time or print space at the same price. Once a private

media outlet agrees to sell time to one party, it may not turn down any other party.

There will likely be limitations on just how much time one party can buy. Private

media may refuse advertisements from all political parties.

ï Fourth: Still with private radio and TV, this ruling covers the broadcasting

of programs and events produced by NGOs. Until registration is finished, NGOs can

produce programs that include as many or as few parties as they wish.

But once the declaration of registered parties and candidates is completed on June

18, all parties must be invited and all party representatives must receive equal

time during the debate. All election-related materials produced by NGOs must be accurate

and impartial.



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