The National Election Committee ordered the government to block all mobile phone SMS communication over the weekend to prevent political parties from campaigning via text message ahead of Sunday’s commune elections, officials said on Friday.
Branding it an affront to freedom of speech, election monitors denounced the ban, which goes from midnight March 30 until the election ends at 3 pm Sunday.
So Khun, minister of post and telecommunications, said that he was ordered by the NEC to issue the ban.
“We are afraid that some parties could use the election day to do campaigning [by texts],” So Khun said.
Tep Nytha, NEC secretary-general, said at a news conference on March 30 that in past elections, parties used SMS messages to campaign past the deadline for campaigning, which ended that day.
Asked of another example in the world where text messages were banned during an election, Tep Nytha said that Cambodia is “an independent country and we don’t need to follow any other country.”
He added that the NEC discussed shutting down all mobile phone services from midnight March 30 until Sunday afternoon but decided against it.
The UN Development Program, which sourced approximately $1.7 million in funding for the NEC, said that it only became aware of the text ban on Friday morning.
“We believe in free flow of information and communications,” said UNDP spokesman Men Kimseng, though he declined to comment on whether the UN supported the NEC’s controversial decision.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, called for the ban to be reversed at news conference on the afternoon of the 30th.
“To ban SMS seriously affects the daily communication of the people,” he said.
Koul Panha added that Comfrel had trained 1,000 out its 2,000 observers to send SMS messages to a computer database, which was to be used to help monitor the election.
“Without SMS it will be very difficult to monitor problems at the polling stations,” he said. “I call for the NEC and the [Ministry of Post and Telecommunications] to cancel the ban.”
Banning text messages was outside the bounds of the election law, said Hang Puthea, executive director for the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
“The law does not state that the NEC is allowed to ban SMS communication among the people,” he said. “Banning SMS is only something a country does during war time.”
The text ban was roundly criticized as unconstitutional by the SRP and Norodom Ranariddh Party but welcomed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP and his minor coalition partner Funcinpec.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that the ban would allow voters to concentrate before going to the polls.
“The law allows people to make the right decision without being disturbed,” he said.
Keo Puth Rasmey, president of Funcinpec, said: “Our party, we don’t have any problem with [the ban] because it won’t affect our vote.”
Mu Sochua, SRP secretary general, issued a letter to NEC Chairman Im Sour Sdey, calling for him to cancel the SMS ban.
SRP President Sam Rainsy said that his supporters would feel the brunt of the ban because the majority are based in the urban centers and use mobile phones.
“SRP has many supporters in the cities and many SRP supporters have phones,” he said.
“The CPP supporters are in the country side and very few of the them have access to technology.”
NRP spokesman Muth Channtha said that the CPP was behind the ban.
“Five CPP members and two Funcinpec members belong to the NEC,” he said.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith denied his party was behind the NEC’s decision.
“We are not involved in the election process. If NEC decide this, there must be a reason,” he said.
The country’s three mobile phone networks, MobiTel, Telecom Malaysia, and Shinawatra, all confirmed that they had received and will be complying with the order.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)