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
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
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
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."