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NGOs under close watch for bias

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, seen speaking at an event last year in Phnom Penh, yesterday accused several NGOs of violating their legally mandated ‘neutrality’.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, seen speaking at an event last year in Phnom Penh, yesterday accused several NGOs of violating their legally mandated ‘neutrality’. Heng Chivoan

NGOs under close watch for bias

The Ministry of Interior yesterday warned human rights groups that they are being closely watched for alleged bias towards the opposition CNRP, in a startling move targeting some of the country’s most prominent local NGOs.

News of an “investigation” was first disclosed by government-aligned media website Fresh News, which reported that a “senior security official” informed the outlet that the government was scrutinising multiple NGOs.

“We are already investigating a group of civil society organisations, particularly the ill-intentioned ringleaders … We will carry out the law seriously,” the anonymous source told the outlet.

Ministry of Interior (MoI) spokesman Khieu Sopheak confirmed yesterday that several organisations – including Licadho, Adhoc and the election watchdog Comfrel – were under observation and that the government may launch a formal investigation.

“We appeal to all NGOs – Licadho, Adhoc – please adhere to neutrality … In case the ministry finds out that these NGOs are supporting any political party, the ministry will take legal action,” Sopheak said.

According to Sopheak, Comfrel’s 2013 report, which questioned the indelibility of the ink used to thumbprint election ballots, showed the organisation was “part of the opposition”. “Don’t do that again,” he said.

“What they do, we can see on their Facebook pages. You see what they publish. Neutral or not, we can see. This is a warning,” Sopheak said.

He also singled out the “Situation Room”, an election monitoring station set up by a coalition of human rights groups and election monitors, as worthy of surveillance.

The warning comes just two days ahead of Cambodia’s commune elections, which are widely regarded as a litmus test for the upcoming 2018 national election.

Observers have noted increased intimidation of rights groups leading up to the tight poll, including the ongoing detention of four Adhoc human rights defenders and a National Election Committee official, who have now been imprisoned for more than a year.

Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s deputy director of advocacy, denied the organisation had violated its neutrality and said she was unaware of any investigation into the NGO.

“As a human rights NGO, pre- and post-election work has been and still is a normal part of our work,” she said.

“No one from MoI has contacted any staff or come to any of our 14 offices.”

Koul Panha, director of Comfrel, denied colluding with the opposition and stressed his organisation was nonpartisan. “We are election observers accredited by the NEC,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, spoke out against the controversial laws being invoked by the Ministry.

“Both the Law on Commune Council Elections and the heavily criticised Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations contain broad, vaguely drafted requirements of ‘neutrality’ for NGOs that are ripe for abuse and threaten to severely restrict their freedom of expression,” she said via email.

“The essential role of civil society in guaranteeing an environment where free and fair elections can take place – including legitimate monitoring activities and comment[ary] on the activities of political parties, candidates and the conduct of the polls – should be celebrated, not punished or deterred.”

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