​UNTAC Opens its Airwaves to Parties | Phnom Penh Post

UNTAC Opens its Airwaves to Parties


Publication date
26 February 1993 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Kevin Barrington

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The United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC) has agreed to grant

access to its radio station and other U.N. media facilities so that opposition parties

can begin broadcasting "information campaigns."

The decision to open up UNTAC media outlets for use by political parties, announced

by UNTAC spokesperson Eric Falt on Feb. 10, comes on the heels of a more than two

months of criticism by FUNCINPEC, BLDP and others that SOC had jumped the gun on

election campaigning.

The electoral law states that political parties must refrain from campaigning and

from displaying their electoral logos prior to the official campaign period. The

law specified the campaign would be declared open on the day the list of officially

registered parties was published.

But "for reasons of security"-referring to grenade attacks on FUNCINPEC

offices, politically motivated murders, maiming, kidnapping and the prevailing climate

of fear and intimidation-UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi moved back the official election

campaign period. He announced that the campaign for the May 23-25 elections would

now start on April 7 and end on May 19.

UNTAC Information and Education Division head Tim Carney said there was a problem

with a short campaign: "It gives advantage to the incumbent. There are 20 political

parties and it's not long enough to allow voters to get to know them and make an

informed choice." So, taking into account the other parties' complaints and

the built-in favoritism of a short campaign, Akashi amended the electoral law to

allow rival parties to present "information campaigns" and placed the U.N.'s

media facilities at their disposal. The amendment only allows for the dissemination

of "party information." Other campaigning, such as the holding of public

rallies, would only be permitted during the official campaign period.

FUNCINPEC, with what some U.N. officials described as "just cause," had

been quite vociferous in airing complaints about SOC's disregard for the electoral

law. In a letter dated January 22, FUNCINPEC's Sam Rainsy informed the head of the

U.N. Electoral Component that SOC's election campaign had, "de facto,"

long since started.

"This is blatantly obvious to anyone who takes the time to observe the billboards

in the towns and countryside, to look at the dramatic increase in posters with the

electoral logos, to read the official newspapers in circulation in Phnom Penh and

to watch SOC television programmes," Rainsy told UNTAC electoral head Reginald


Apart from the "tendentious dialogue and commentary" and the "eulogies

over high-ranking officials," Rainsy was particularly incensed by the SOC media's

attacks on political opponents. Attacks on FUNCINPEC have escalated in direct proportion

to the perceived popularity of or the threat from the royalist faction.

Parallelling the increase in attacks on FUNCINPEC has been an escalation in the SOC's

media promotion of their own likely candidates. UNTAC Information Division Deputy

Director Stephen Heder describes the two different SOC media tactics. There's "positive

campaigning" where prominence is given to senior party figures on visits to

likely electoral constituencies and to all good deeds the potential candidates have

performed. "The obvious message is: good men doing good things in places where

you are likely to have the opportunity to vote for them," Heder said.

On the "negative" side, there were two major themes. "One was the

other parties are tied not only historically but currently to the Khmer Rouge,"

Heder said. "The second was that the opposition parties were all criminals and

their existence is 'contrary to social order,'" he added. Reflecting the classic

communist synthesis of state structures and party interest, he noted a perfect consistency

to the anti-opposition tirades across the various SOC media.

The Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) had an additional accusation

thrown at them. Along with the two generics, "threat to society" and "Khmer

Rouge bedfellows," there was the additional accusation that they were "badly


One UNTAC official pointed out that emphasis on attacking the KPNLF declined in November

as FUNCINPEC began to be targeted for exclusive abuse. The official did not think

that it was a coincidence that this was also the time FUNCINPEC started to have more

than names hurled at the party. During Nov. 12 - 28, UNTAC Human Rights Component

reported ten armed attacks on FUNCINPEC party members and offices.

While the physical assaults on FUNCINPEC escalated, a December U.N. media report

noted a parallel rise on the verbal front with the smears becoming more succinct.

The opposition was then branded "thieves, terrorists and enemies of the people."

SOC TV, meanwhile, was exploring new avenues of defamation. On TV, in particular,

and with regular intensity, there was a heavy stress on publicizing the involvement

of FUNCINPEC members in criminal cases. The basic underlining message appears to

be that FUNCINPEC members are criminals or that the party harbors criminals or that

criminals are using FUNCINPEC as a place to hide. "They started to present people

who confess to their crimes and then prominently display their party membership card,"

Heder stated, adding that he had never seen a case where the CPP membership of a

supposed criminal was highlighted.

Despite occasional references to "smearing," it was only in January that

the U.N. media reports began to repeatedly state that a "smear campaign"

was being waged against FUNCINPEC. At the same time, U.N. Information and Education

officials noted a "renewed SOC attempt to use (Deputy Prime Minister Prince

Norodom) Chakrapong as a propaganda weapon against FUNCINPEC."

"They often invite Chakrapong to insult Ranariddh and say that FUNCINPEC is

playing the game orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge. They say that we are Khmer Rouge

accomplices. At the same time SOC denies that they are responsible for the political

violence and blame it on the Khmer Rouge. But they fall into their own contradiction,"

Rainsy said, adding that "We can't be playing the Khmer Rouge game and at the

same time be the victims of Khmer Rouge attacks."

Accusing Chakrapong of blatant defamation and outright lies, Rainsy wrote Jan. 22

to SOC Minister of Information Dith Munthy calling for the "right of reponse"

outlined in the UNTAC Media Guidelines. Having received no reply by Feb. 17, he requested

the Information Division to ensure the terms of the guideline were respected. Carney,

however, refused to comment on whether SOC TV would be forced to comply.

The issue of enforcing media control is one that many party figures and some U.N.

officials think should be aired now. The U.N. media reports, as well as Akashi's

decision to open access to U.N. facilities, prove Rainsy's point that the campaign

has in fact started. And given that it has, FUNCINPEC is asking for equal access

to all media. "There must be equal footing," Rainsy said. FUNCINPEC was

not only asking for UNTAC radio but also for SOC radio and TV, he said. "They

must be considered public goods belonging to the whole people. The party should not

be allowed to make use of State property," Rainsy argued.

Rainsy saw two alternatives. The first was to force SOC to stop campaigning now.

"But that's not very realistic- you can't just shut peoples' mouths, you can't

put a CivPol behind every person." The other alternative was to allow parties

the same access to the media that SOC has. "Since they cannot stop SOC, refrain

them a little and let others move up. We will ask for the right of response,"

he said. Having reminded Austin of the provisions of the Paris Agreement, the electoral

law and the U.N. Media Guidelines, it would be ridiculous, he said, if UNTAC didn't

apply them. "I think there are a lot of weaknesses in UNTAC. But unlike the

Khmer Rouge we work with UNTAC, we want to remind it of its responsibilities, of

the provisions of which they are the authors."

This task still lies ahead because, according to Rainsy, "Akashi did not dare

go so far" at the SNC meeting of Feb. 10. He claimed the "political information"

campaign was a compromise. Akashi would not declare the campaign officially open

because a neutral political environment did not yet exist. But, Rainsy was at pains

to point out, a neutral political environment was impossible if one party controls

the media.

UNTAC spokesman, Eric Falt, would not comment on whether any measures would be taken

to curb SOC media abuses. But Falt stated that full use of UNTAC's media facilities

should address the media imbalance and compensate for SOC's partiality. He dismissed

the contention that the rival parties would still be at a disadvantage because, unlike

SOC, UNTAC does not have a television station. Television only reached certain areas

in Cambodia and television sets were still out of the financial reach of the majority

of people, Falt said. In addition to the Information and Education Division's video

programmes which are distributed and shown throughout the country, there's UNTAC

radio, currently broadcasting four-and-a-half hours daily, at the parties disposal.

As well, a Japanese aid project is currently engaged in the distribution of thousands

of radio sets throughout Cambodia, Falt reported. Regarding its effectiveness, "Radio

is the best medium in Cambodia," he said.

Information and Education Director Tim Carney defended Akashi's decision to address

the media problem by just opening up UNTAC's facilities. He believed that his division

had sufficient means at its disposal to cause people to question information they

may have heard on other factions' media. There were too many foreigners and elite

Khmers who failed to credit the people with sufficient wit to reognize factional

propaganda and dismiss it as the "nonsense that it is," Carney said.

Unfortunately, not everybody shares his appreciation of the Cambodian people's capacities

for deconstructing political discourse. In the Information and Education division

itself it appears that some members feel that it is not the people's powers but the

power of television that has been underestimated. "The power of television to

influence public opinion is much more significant than this information officer had

previously realized," a U.N. information analyst noted in a special internal

report seen by the Phnom Penh Post. "In areas where TVK (SOC TV) is received

it seems to be the most credible of the sources, regardless of its level of accuracy.

People talk about programming on TVK as though it were true. The general populace

does seem to believe the claims of TVK that party members are the ones committing

crimes," the report noted.

Despite the U.N. spokesman's assertions about the capabilities of radio, the internal

report indicated otherwise. "Radio UNTAC alone is insufficient to counter the

effects of SOC radio and TV. The effect of visual imagery is far too powerful. Cambodians

say "I saw it." If SOC's TVK cannot prove its charges that other members

of political parties are criminals and Khmer Rouge operatives, the station should

not be allowed to broadcast them, the report noted. One option, the document suggests,

is to force TVK to provide time for other political parties to respond. The author

goes on to propose radical measures such as shutting the station down entirely or

putting it completely under the control of UNTAC, if SOC refuses to share airtime.

Carney dismissed the importance of his own division's report, saying that the views

expressed on the power of SOC television and on the inability of the U.N. media to

give sufficient counterbalance to SOC broadcasts were "subjective." Carney

looked at the question of controlling SOC media in the broader framework of the peace

plan, citing the Khmer Rouge's refusal to honor its signature as crucial. "It's

fundamentally a problem that derives from a lack of symmetry, a lack of parallelism,"

he said. Forcing a control mechanism on SOC, he implied, would therefore beg certain

questions in relation to the PDK and leave UNTAC open to the accusation that it was

being one-sided.

Other observers phrase this scenario in a different manner: with the Khmer Rouge

not cooperating in the peace plan, UNTAC is terrified that the whole process might

be jeopardized if, by putting too much pressure on the other major player, SOC could

also withdraw cooperation. Carney, however, thought that the U.N. could combat the

media abuse through diplomatic means. "The essential way to start it is to get

SOC to realize that there is an acceptable way to use media. In every political campaign

you are going to get the bad guys and the good guys (and not just SOC). The essence

is to get everyone to accept certain limits and strictures, levels of acceptable

political debate," he said.

So it appears that access to the U.N. facilities is the only compensation the political

parties are going to get this side of April 7. And what if, after April 7, there

is still no fair access, if the abuses still continue? Will they be stopped, will

the offending media be shut down? Carney replied "Stay tuned."

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