Government’s Limits on Information Leaving Voters in the Dark

Reporters in Cambodia seeking statistics from government ministries and departments are used to being given the brush-off from time to time, but in the run-up to the July 28 national election, things appear to have worsened.

The Council for the Develop­ment of Cambodia (CDC) has for years provided journalists with monthly figures for approved investment projects—data which outlines all projects signed off on that are worth more than $2 million.

But in May, the CDC—which has not provided the figures for any month since November—said that under a new rule, permission from the minister in charge of the council, Sok Chenda, was required.

Mr. Chenda has ignored journalists’ requests for permission and on Thursday declined to comment on why the figures have not been provided.

Another key source of data on the government’s activity is the Ministry of Economy and Finance’s table of financial operation, or TOFE, which is supposed to be published monthly, and is the most detailed breakdown of government revenue and spending regularly made available.

A version of the table has not been published since January, when the table for 2012 up to November was posted on the ministry’s website.

Even a simple statistic, such as the number of construction projects approved by the Ministry of Land Management, can be difficult to obtain.

For this and other seemingly run-of-the-mill figures, reporters have been told that they must go through the lengthy process of submitting a written letter to the minister concerned with a specific request, and to give the reason why they need the information.

Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, Land Management Ministry spokesman, said such a letter was necessary in order to prevent data from being used for sinister purposes.

“The ministry needs a request letter,” he said. “If everyone could just get information easily, the information could be used for subversive purposes.”

“As you are aware, the U.S. is having problems with data stealing involving Edward Snowden,” he added, referring to the whistle-blower who revealed secret National Security Agency programs that allow the U.S. government to monitor online communications.

Kong Putheara, director of the Commerce Ministry’s statistics department, said he provides data to journalists when he has it, but sometimes he does not have access to figures.

“If I say I have the data, you will get it,” he said. “But if they [my superiors] don’t give it to me, what can I do?”

Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said it was important that the electorate have access to information around elections, so that they can judge the records of politicians and parties.

“In a democratic society, probably there’s no other part when information is more needed than during the election period,” he said.

© 2013, All rights reserved.