The Ministry of Information on Saturday lifted a ban on the broadcast of all Khmer-language foreign radio programs by FM stations during the month leading up to the July 28 national election amid swift and harsh rebuke from the U.S. and the broadcasters themselves.
The ministry signed off on the ban Tuesday and announced it Friday, claiming that the blackout on any and all foreign programming was needed to assure “neutral” coverage of the election, and warned it would take legal action against anyone who broke it.
On Saturday, the ministry attributed the swift about face on the ban to a wave of dissent that had emerged in the aftermath of the ban’s announcement.
“According to the requests asking the ministry to [allow the] rebroadcast of all Khmer-language programs via local FM radio stations, the ministry has decided to allow all FM stations renting airtime for foreign programs to continue to broadcast as normal from now on,” it said in a brief, unsigned statement.
Reaction to news of the month-long ban on foreign radio programs on Friday was immediate.
At a press briefing in Washington on Saturday, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the ban would call into question the coming election’s credibility.
“This directive is a serious infringement on freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process,” he said. “We are deeply concerned by this action and urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to reconsider this decision.”
Mr. Ventrell said the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia would be expressing its concerns to the Cambodian government directly.
Despite those concerns, officials on Sunday were mum on who was to blame for the ban.
The directive ordering the ban was signed by Information Ministry Secretary of State and acting Minister Ouk Prathna on Tuesday. However, the statement lifting the ban on Saturday was signed by no one and carried no name.
In a post on his Facebook page Sunday morning, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said he was neither responsible for the decision to issue the ban nor to lift it and declined to say whose decisions they were.
“Last night, the Ministry of Information decided to allow all FM radio stations to resume the rebroadcasting of foreign radios. But I was not the one that decided the suspension and the reverse of decision,” Mr. Kanharith said.
Mr. Prathna could not be reached for comment and other officials at the ministry declined to comment. National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nytha said his office had nothing to do with the ban and referred questions back to the Ministry of Information.
In a statement issued Friday, Voice of America (VOA), the U.S. government’s official overseas broadcaster, condemned what it called an attempt to restrict voters’ access to reliable news. Radio Free Asia (RFA), which the U.S. government also partly funds, called the ban “the most sweeping and stunning frontal assault on media freedom in Cambodia in recent memory” and “a blatant strategy to silence the types of disparate and varied voices that characterize an open and free society.”
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which supervises all media supported by the U.S. government and counts U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry among its members, said the government’s ban on foreign programming was “undermining its own legitimacy and blatantly repudiating the very democracy it claims to espouse.”
Local opposition parties, election monitors and rights groups also condemned the ban as having no legal basis, and even said the ban violated the Constitution.
The country’s press law expressly prohibits any pre-publication censorship.
The ban was not the first such order from the government.
The Information Ministry ordered FM stations not to transmit VOA and RFA programs on the day before and day of last year’s commune elections. It also cut off a Voice of Democracy (VOD) program on voting irregularities at the polls on election day midway through the broadcast.
The U.S. Embassy on Sunday welcomed the Information Ministry’s decision to lift its broadcast ban this time around.
“This is a positive development in line with the requirements of a democratic electoral process,” embassy spokesman John Simmons said. “We urge the Royal Government to insure full press freedom, including during the campaign period up to and including the day of the national elections, and to take the other steps recommended by the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia.”
Mr. Simmons declined to comment on what, if any, direct communication the embassy had with the government about the ban since Friday.
Koul Panha, who heads the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, also welcomed the ministry’s decision to lift the ban. “The radio plays a very crucial role…because it’s easy for them [voters] to access the FM, so I think this is a positive move,” he said.
Had the ban stayed in place, he added, “the ruling party would have a monopoly on information and that would create doubt about the information, that maybe it is not true.”
“Many stations are very partisan [toward the CPP] and not so many independent, so it [the ban] would affect a lot, it would really affect the fairness of the elections,” Mr. Panha said.
“Without these few independent radio broadcasts all the information [would come] only from the government media and it would be very biased. It would be very bad for the elections,” agreed VOD director Pa Nguon Teang.
He said the need for independent coverage of the election was especially crucial in light of the serious concerns being raised about this year’s voter list. Election monitoring groups who have audited the government’s list say up to 1 million voters could be disenfranchised due to widespread errors, possibly rendering this national election the least fair in 20 years.
And even with the broadcast ban lifted, he added, most FM stations still lean toward the CPP.
“Even though they lift the ban, it is still not balanced,” he said.