Civil Society Leaders Blast Plan to Ban Election Commentary

Civil society leaders on Sunday called on the country’s two major political parties to scrap plans to ban them from giving media interviews during election campaigns and from issuing statements that “insult” any party.

CPP Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin and senior CNRP official Kuoy Bunroeun, who are leading talks to amend the national election law, said on Friday that they are considering such a ban to ensure that NGOs remain “neutral.”

NGOs have long played a central role in Cambodia’s elections, conducting critical research into topics ranging from corrupted voter lists to election violence, and have provided a near constant check on the government, even at times when the opposition has cowered.

Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said that any ban on civil society commenting on elections would be an affront to the country’s hopes for democracy.

“The prevention of civil society groups from sharing ideas during election campaigns is a setback to democracy in Cambodia,” Mr. Puthea said.

“In the name of civil society, we are aware that the two political parties are doing things in secret, not opening up to the public, and that they are thinking of their own parties’ interests and not of the general public,” he said.

“I will continue talking because the election does not belong to these parties; it’s for the general public,” Mr. Puthea added.

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said advocacy on elections is the entire point of his NGO.

“This affects the freedom of expression and political rights of civil society groups,” Mr. Panha said.

“Civil society groups never want to grab power or become lawmakers because they are only trying to advocate to influence the policies of the political parties.”

Sok Sam Ouen, a lawyer who chairs the Cambodian Human Rights Action Center, said Cambodian NGO workers have the right to comment during campaigns by virtue of being citizens.

“If the law is passed like this, it looks like the Cambodian government is restricting our rights.”

Mr. Sam Oeun also criticized any ban on “insulting” language, saying it could be interpreted liberally by a government looking to target people who are against it.

“If they pass such a law, it is easy to find a reason to arrest people. They know people, when they are angry, cannot control their temper and will say bad words,” he said.

Mr. Bunroeun of the CNRP said Sunday that the proposed ban on NGOs giving interviews and releasing “insulting” statements is meant only to ensure civility.

“The expression of opinion is not prohibited. But what is important is that they have to be independent with what they say by not insulting, blaming or interrupting any candidates who are politicians,” Mr. Bunroeun said.

“We’re not prohibiting them at all,” he added. “Please don’t be confused.”

(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)

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