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Local Stations in a Quandary Over Election Broadcasting Ban

This is a photo of radio that belongs to a Voice of America listener in Phnom Penh, Cambodia who recently submitted the photo as part of a Facebook photo contest. The photo and participation shows the popularity of VOA broadcasts for many Cambodians. (Courtesy of Kan Sophano)
Local FM radio station operators say they are uncertain whether they will drop programming from the Voice of America and other foreign-produced media, following the issue of a government ban on broadcasting leading up to Election Day.

A June 21 directive from the Ministry of Information bans the broadcast of election news for 48 hours ahead of the July 28 polls, as well as the broadcast of opinion polls starting from five days before the elections.

Local station owners say they fear they will have their licenses revoked if they do broadcast such programming. That would include programs produced by the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio France International and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“If the Ministry of Information issues a directive banning us from doing anything, we will have to comply with it,” said Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio, which broadcasts on FM105. “But if the US and other major countries that contribute funding to the elections step in to facilitate with the government to allow us to broadcast as normal, that would be an ideal scenario.”

Chea Sundanet, director of FM102, the Women’s Media Center, said she is still “not clear” on whether to carry election programming or simply have her station play music for the two days of media blackout.

Initially there was a directive issued on June 25 by the same ministry to ban all foreign-related programming at the time, but government officials backed away from that after an outcry from the international community. But parts of the ban are apparently still in place due to an eariler June 21 ban.

“The ministry’s directive, issued on June 21, is still in effect until the July 28 elections,” said Ouk Kimseng, an adviser to the Ministry of Information. He did not elaborate, saying that the directive and a subsequent clarification statement by the National Election Committee were “clear enough.”

Acting Information Minister Ouk Prathna and the ministry’s director-general, Buth Bovuth, could not be reached for comment, despite efforts over the past three days to contact them.

What stations can broadcast remains unclear.

The National Election Committee issued a statement on July 17 claiming it was not asking for a suspension of radio broadcasts.

“Media owners and their managers must give their utmost effort to participate in free and fair elections by providing information on the elections, and consider news on the elections as their main priority,” according to the statement.

NEC Secretary-General Tep Nitha said that the government’s election body requires stations to maintain “neutrality.”

“But when foreign radio stations broadcasting in Khmer are biased towards certain political parties contesting the election, and their programming is carried by local radio stations, this makes it hard for the NEC to control,” he said. “Once there is a report from outside that is biased or not neutral, the local media are obliged to respond, making it hard for the NEC to manage. We have had such difficulties in the past few elections.”

The National Election Committee has been roundly criticized as biased toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The CPP, for its part, has shown an intolerance of government dissent in the past, and its officials often misconstrue objective, critical reporting on its activities as a bias for the opposition.

The CPP and its supporters, meanwhile, enjoy a near monopoly on broadcast media, including state television. On Friday, when tens of thousands of supporters crowded the streets of Phnom Penh to welcome the return of exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy—a major political event—the news was not broadcast on state-run television.

One government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the ban in part is designed to silence the results of a survey undertaken by local rights and democracy groups ahead of the election.

Tep Nitha said radio stations have the right to broadcast what they want. “But those who rebroadcast programming should take partial responsibility on any information aiming to cause confusion or mistrust among voters.”

That has left radio station operators in a bind.

“I think that there is no problem for me that the ministry has banned these broadcasts,” said Keo Chanratha, owner of Angkor Ratha, which broadcasts from Siem Reap on FM95.5. However, he said, if the Voice of America and other broadcasters produce only international news, along with educational spots from the National Election Committee, that would be fine.

Other broadcasters have taken a more determined stance.

“We won’t comply with the Ministry of Information’s directive, but we will abide by the NEC,” said Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Voice of Democracy, a local program producer.

However, he said, they will only be able to broadcast their reporting online, because the radio station where they usually purchase airtime has decided it will only run music during the election.

“Legally, this [directive] runs counter to the constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which ensures freedom of expression and the press,” said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies. “Secondly, our people need news on the election very much, and if we ban it, we are at a big loss.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article did not fully clarify the effect of the June 21 ban discribing it as "[appearing] to ban all foreign-related programming at the time."