The Ministry of Information has banned the broadcast of all Khmer-language programs by foreign radio stations for the entire 31 days of the pre-election campaign period and on election day, July 28, warning that legal action will ensue if stations fail to comply.
The ban, announced on Friday, immediately silenced Khmer-language radio broadcasts from Voice of America, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio France International, which are relayed in Cambodia through such stations as Beehive Radio F.M. 105 and the Women’s Media Center (WMC) F.M. 102.
“A man from the ministry called to me and…said we must stop [broadcasting],” Beehive Radio staffer Srey Noa said, adding that the call came at about 9 p.m. on Friday.
“He did not tell me his name, he just called and asked me why we had not stopped broadcasting, like RFA, because the Information Ministry said it [was banned] already,” she said.
Chea Sunvaneth, director of the WMC’s F.M. 102 radio, confirmed that the station had to cease broadcasting foreign programs late Friday after receiving the ministry’s letter.
“Yes, we stopped broadcasting from 8:30 p.m.,” Ms. Sunvaneth said. “They sent me a letter from the Ministry of Information to stop broadcasting radio from outside [the country] from now until the finish of the election.”
The ban, which was signed on Tuesday by Secretary of State and “acting Information Minister” Ouk Prathna, but only made public on Friday, states: “All F.M. radio stations must suspend relaying and airing all Khmer-language programs of foreign radios during the 31 days of the election campaign and election day.”
“In case any F.M. radio station does not respect the directive, the ministry of information will take legal measures,” the statement adds.
According to the ministry, the ban is to ensure media neutrality during the election campaign.
“Both state and private radio stations must be neutral at reporting the news related to the election and voters, and must pay attention especially to the case prohibiting foreign programs from being presented in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” the statement says, citing “procedures in the fifth mandate of the legislative elections prohibiting foreigners campaigning in support of, or in opposition to, a political party or individual.”
Mr. Prathna, who signed the directive, could not be reached for comment and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said just before deadline Friday that he was campaigning.
“I am now not in charge of the ministry, as I am campaigning,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said it was “a very sensitive issue” and declined further comment.
Thach Phen and Mao Ayuth, secretaries of state at the Information Ministry, also declined to comment. Mr. Ayuth explained his silence saying: “I am afraid I will say the wrong thing.”
Phos Sovann, deputy director of the ministry’s information and broadcasting general department, explained the ban by citing a National Election Committee (NEC) regulation that prohibits foreigners from campaigning for or opposing any political parties during the election period. “I understand that this is the reason to suspend those foreign radio programs broadcasting in Cambodia,” he said, declining to elaborate further.
Tep Nytha, secretary-general of the NEC, reacted to the 31-day ban saying that it was “not a long time,” and that such censorship is necessary to prevent an “imbalance” in the media.
“They broadcast about only negative points of the government, and this is the reason the Ministry of Information suspended them,” Mr. Nytha said.
During last June’s commune elections, the Information Ministry issued an election-weekend ban on the transmission of programs by Radio Free Asia, a station partly funded by the U.S. government, and Voice of America, which is the U.S. government’s official broadcaster overseas.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said he was shocked by the order and said he could not understand any legal basis for it. “It’s a really big concern that affects free information during the election campaign,” he said.
“This is the worst situation, having this kind of obstruction. How people can enforce this kind of obstruction I really don’t understand.”
Human Rights Party president Son Soubert, a former member of the Constitutional Council of Cambodia, said the censorship was unprecedented in recent Cambodian history, and a clear violation of freedom of expression rights, which are enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution and the U.N. Convention on Human Rights, to which Cambodia is a party.
“I think [the directive] is unconstitutional because all conventions on human rights are included in the Constitution, so therefore they have to abide by it.”
Article 41 of the Constitution states that “Khmer citizens shall have freedom of expression, press, publication and assembly. No one shall exercise this right to infringe upon the rights of others, to affect the good traditions of the society, to violate public law and order and national security.”
Mr. Soubert said such censorship is typically seen in communist countries. “Only in a communist country [does this happen],” he said. “There is no reason for them to do that; they are not inciting people to make a revolution or demonstrating or anything like that. In China, they control the broadcasting from abroad and in North Korea there is no such listening to foreign radio. This is a measure like in Russia, where they restrict coverage from time to time.”
Cambodia Institute for Media Studies director Moeun Chhean Nariddh said the ban was “very unfortunate” because people across the country would be deprived of essential information in the lead-up to the election.
“Banning any media outlet from publishing or broadcasting information during this period is unfortunate and is a setback for Cambodian democracy as well as press freedom as a whole,” Mr. Chhean Nariddh said. “I think this period, because of the merger of two opposition parties, it is a sign that the government has considered the merger of the two parties as a threat.
“I think unless the international community does something courageous to resolve the current situation, I think press freedom will be going from bad to worse because the international community seems to have lost leverage in terms of their power which is tied to the financial assistance to Cambodia.”
Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Yim Sovann also appealed to donors to “react and do something to save democracy in Cambodia, otherwise free and fair elections will be jeopardized.”
In a statement, Transparency International executive director Preap Kol said the ban is a “step backward for democracy and freedom of information in Cambodia.”
“This act reduces access to information, which people consider as neutral, independent and balanced, which can help them make a more informed decision on the election day.”