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UN agency condemned for lobbying tactics

UN agency condemned for lobbying tactics

Several election observers have criticized the UN Development Programme (UNDP) for

overstepping its mandate by lobbying the international community on behalf of the

National Election Committee (NEC) on the recent controversy over equal media access

for political parties.

In a communiqué sent to diplomats February 1, UNDP sought to "clarify"

the NEC's role and responsibilities relating to the election campaign and its media

coverage. It said the NEC had neither the duty nor the legal right to ensure electoral

coverage in the state-run electronic media.

"The NEC is not and should not be the vehicle of the electoral platform of political

parties," the communiqué stated. "There is no legal basis for the

NEC to get involved in the preparation or broadcasting of a debate between political

parties aimed at informing the voters about the substantive program of each political

party."

It added that the NEC would transgress its jurisdiction by getting involved in any

process of political broadcasts. When the Post contacted UNDP for comment about specific

references to its statement, a spokesman said the organization was not prepared to

comment on the matter.

Dr Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, felt the

UN body had overstepped its mandate by trying to protect the NEC from criticism over

an important electoral issue, particularly when it had an interest in organizing

the election and had sponsored the drafting of the commune election law.

"True, the [commune election] law does not explicitly mention the NEC's responsibility

[for ensuring] equal media access for political parties," he said, "but

programs like the televised round tables involving representatives from all the parties

were initiated by the NEC itself. It even sought and received international funding

to produce and broadcast those programs."

The whole controversy over media access apparently stemmed from a legal confusion.

While article 75 of the law on election of National Assembly members clearly stipulated

that the NEC "shall take steps to publicize political messages at the request

of a registered political party participating in the elections, based on equal and

orderly access to media", the section was omitted from the law on commune council

elections.

The observers, however, based their arguments on clause 10 of the new law, which

stated that "the power, functions and duties as determined in this law shall

be assigned in addition to the ones delegated to the NEC in the law for election

of MPs".

Some international election observers also took exception to the way in which the

UNDP's statement was worded and emailed to Phnom Penh's diplomatic community.

They said it clearly smacked of a pro-NEC bias, and stated that the UNDP was supposed

to advise or offer consultancy to the NEC on behalf of the international community.

Instead, it seemed to be doing the opposite.

"In a country like Cambodia where democracy is still an evolving concept, assisting

the voters to make an informed choice about the parties is crucial," said one

Western observer. "For the next elections, the international community should

perhaps pool its resources for producing and broadcasting the political programs

[providing equal access to all parties] without routing them through the NEC."

The NGO Coordination Committee, a grouping of local election NGOs, condemned in its

report February 10 inequitable media access as one of the electoral problems.

As a result, the ruling party had sufficient ability and means to monopolize the

private and state media. In contrast, the report said, there were at least seven

parties that had little or no access to the use of private and state media.

Mong Hay felt that in keeping with the spirit of free and fair elections and liberal

democracy, there was a legitimate need to produce and broadcast political round tables

to improve voter awareness.

"How can we give the voters an informed choice if the political parties don't

get a chance to present their platforms in a party based [electoral] system?"

Mong Hay asked. "When you demand the voters tick against the name of a party

and not individual candidates, such [a restriction] sounds ridiculous."

Mark Stevens, deputy chief of the EU's observation mission, agreed that the NEC could

have been "a little more creative" in its role on the issue of media access.

In its reference to the NEC's decision to cancel a series of election broadcasts

after they had been produced at a considerable expense, the EU report dated February

5 expressed concern over "this regression".

"In that sense, the NEC interpreted its role in a far narrower and more restrictive

manner than in 1998," Stevens said, adding that the NEC had actively facilitated

equal media access to the political parties during 1998 election campaign. Therefore,

he felt the principles laid down in 2002 would have been useful in the 2003 general

election.

After numerous about-turns, the NEC decided not to broadcast any of the roundtable

programs or candidate debates produced by election NGOs in the 15-day election campaign

period that ended February 1. That decision drew strong criticism from both local

and international election observers and the diplomatic community.

US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann would not comment on the UNDP's statement, but did condemn

the NEC's decision on media access.

"It was clearly wrong that the NEC did not fulfill the legal requirements and

its pledge to provide equal [media] access to the political parties," he said.

"If this kind of thing continues to happen in the 2003 general election, it

will be a major blemish [on Cambodia's elections] and will not be acceptable to Cambodia's

friends or to most donors."

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