Officials yesterday said government-issued media guidelines for election coverage which prohibit the publication of news that affects the country’s “social stability” were just a “reminder” of existing laws, but some NGOs said the issuing of the code of conduct was an act meant to “stifle dissent.”
The 12-page guidelines, issued by the National Election Committee (NEC) and dated September of last year, prohibit “the publication or dissemination of news that affects public order, causing fear or violence to occur” and news that “affects national security, political and social stability.”
In a letter dated May 11, the Information Ministry warned that media outlets must abide by these guidelines or face being shut down.
Information Ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng yesterday said the NEC guidelines and the ministry’s May 11 letter were based on old election and press laws.
All nine members of the NEC “have approved these guidelines, and the guidelines are based on the existing law,” he said. “The letter that the Information Ministry has sent to the media is just to remind them” of the law, he said.
The NEC guidelines suggest fines of 5 million to 20 million riel, or about $1,250 to $5,000, for violations of the laws on parliamentary and commune elections, including disturbing public order on election day.
Using similar language, the country’s Press Law says the employer, editor or author of information that “may affect national security and political stability” faces fines of 5 million to 15 million riel, or about $1,250 to $3,750.
Nevertheless, Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), said the NEC guidelines and ministry letter could spook editors and publishers.
“They want to show that they are the ones that control the media, and they are closely monitoring the media,” Mr. Nguon Teang said. “This is something that might scare or frighten the media operator.”
He said restrictions on news organizations, including election rules limiting media coverage on the day before polling, including the June 4 commune elections, “does not benefit the voter.”
In a statement released on Friday, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development also condemned the NEC’s “restrictive” media guidelines.
“The code of conduct includes vague language and restrictive rules, which violate the Cambodian Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press and expression,” the statement says. “The new guidelines are another attempt to stifle dissent.”
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said the guidelines were meant to reiterate election laws, which all media had to follow.
News outlets “must be on the neutral position” and they should not show bias to one political party or another, he said.
Teav Sarakmony, editor-in- chief of Rasmei Kampuchea, one of Cambodia’s most widely circulated Khmer-language newspapers, which is owned by CPP stalwart and Senate President Say Chhum and refrains from reporting anything critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to CCIM, said his staff complied with the government’s code of conduct and reported unbiased news.
“Even if there is no NEC guideline, we must be careful with what we write,” he said. “We do not add our opinion. We do not speak good of one guy and speak ill of another. We have to be fair and balanced.”
According to the Associated Press, the U.S. State Department has called for freedom of expression to be respected during the upcoming Cambodian elections, with spokeswoman for East Asia, Alicia Edwards, saying the Cambodian government should “guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation.”