The Ministry of Information has issued a ban on the broadcasting of “foreign” programming ahead of the July 28 national election, in a move that will effectively silence much of the news independent of the ruling party and one that observers say could taint the election.
In a circular issued June 25, the ministry orders “all FM stations” to suspend “rebroadcasting from all foreign radio stations that broadcast in Khmer language” in the 31 days preceding nationwide parliamentary elections.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party and its supporters have nearly full control of broadcast media in Cambodia, and neutral election observers say this creates an uneven playing field already for other parties contesting the parliamentary elections.
The elections, held once every five years, choose parliamentary representatives from across the country and are the basis for the formation of the executive branch, which is ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP.
“The Ministry of Information belongs to the ruling party,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “Therefore their decision is for nothing but to bring benefits to the ruling party.”
The ban will make it hard to accept the election as fair, he said. “This is what the government needs to be careful of.”
The ban would include broadcasts of programming from the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio France International and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
VOA Khmer programming is broadcast on a seven FM stations, including Beehive Radio FM105 and the Women’s Media Center FM102 in Phnom Penh and Angkor Ratha FM95.5 in Siem Reap. Its television programming is carried on affiliates TVK and CTN.
Buth Bovuth, director-general of the Ministry of Information, told VOA Khmer Friday that the ban was put in place to prevent “biased reporting” from outside media.
“National media, both state and private, are under guidelines to have neutral coverage without bias toward any side,” he said. “They have to comply with that. Therefore, if they carry programs of other radio stations like VOA and RFA that have different policies, it will violate their principle of neutrality.”
However, broadcasters contacted Friday saw things differently.
“This directive is against the constitution,” Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio, said. “But we already know that the government never bases its actions on the constitution or any law. They simply do the things they want to do, and it’s hard to take a law to discuss with them.”
He said he would comply with the ministry ban.
“We have to listen to them, even though it’s wrong,” he said. “It’s very hard to work in a country that has a government and a constitution that don’t co-exist.”
Keo Chanratha, owner of Angkor Ratha, called the ban “regretful.”
“Right now people are getting information to help them decide on this election,” he said.
Hang Puthea, head of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the ban would hurt the fairness of the election process.
“I think that people will find it harder to make their decisions, especially when they receive information from only one side,” he said. “They won’t have a fair decision to choose their leaders.”
Immediate reactions on Voice of America Khmer Service's Facebook page to the news of Cambodian government's ban of foreign radio broadcast programming on local FM radio stations. (Screenshot on June 29, 2013)
Meanwhile, on the VOA Khmer Facebook page, there were more than 150 comments and hundreds of shares of the news.
“What article and law ban on media and broadcast in democracy?” posted user Goodwill Khmer. “Can we sue the ministry? Any lawyer here, pls advise!”
“We are really get annoyed and angry when our government do like this,” posted user Sophea Chhem, in English, adding in Khmer: “Most media organizations in Cambodia are not independent. This is something the government cannot deny.”
In an announcement posted on Facebook, VOA Khmer said it would continue to report on the elections and broadcast on its AM frequencies. Each day at 5 am, programming can be found at 1575 medium wave and at 5.905 and 9.32 shortwave. At 8:30 pm, programming can be found at 1575 medium wave and 11.695 shortwave. Radio broadcasts are also available on the VOA Khmer website, www.khmer.voanews.com.