In another apparent reversal of a prior decision, the National Election Committee will not allow the state-run television station to broadcast voter information roundtables—a move that angered democracy advocates who contend the NEC is practicing censorship in the weeks leading up to the Feb 3 commune elections.
Prum Nhean Vichet, media officer for the NEC, said Wednesday that because some of the material in the roundtable discussions is objectionable and “may incite problems with the people,” the NEC reversed an earlier decision to allow the roundtables to air.
Although he could not provide specific examples of inflammatory information in the tapes, Prum Nhean Vichet said, “We will not allow the roundtables to air because something in them may affect the society and is not helpful to the people.” He did leave the door open for the NEC to reconsider.
The 15 voter information roundtables, which were prepared by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections and several other NGOs, examined issues related to the upcoming commune elections.
“These debates are important as a forum for a party to present their views to the voters and their solutions for problems facing the nation,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy. “How can the electorate be informed if they do not have the information to make their decisions?”
Preventing the roundtables from airing obstructs the democratic process that is at the heart of the commune elections, and censoring such information will affect the fairness and the freedom of the elections, he contended.
Lao Mong Hay said he will try to set up a meeting with NEC Chairman Chheng Phon today to negotiate the airing of the programs. No privately run stations have been approached about airing the roundtables.
Comfrel Director Koul Panha said freedom of expression and freedom of assembly—two foundations for a democratic society—will be limited if the public is not allowed to see these programs.
“I think the [roundtables] are important because they provide knowledge and information so the voters can make good decisions in the elections,” he said, pointing out that televised election information is especially important since many voters are illiterate.
He said if the roundtables cannot be aired on any state-run or privately run television stations, Comfrel will try to convince radio stations to air them.
A representative from the Swedish NGO Forum Syd, which helped fund the election NGOs that prepared the roundtables, said she was not aware of the NEC’s decision and could not comment.
In a related issue, an official from the Khmer Institute for Democracy said the institute received another setback in their attempt to find a privately run television station to air a commune election debate held Saturday in Kampot.
Kem Sambaddh, head of administration for the institute, said representatives from a private TV station told him they needed written permission from the Ministry of Information before they could air the debate to “ensure that the content of the debate is suitable for public viewing.”
The Information Ministry has no control over the broadcast of election-related material, said ministry Cabinet Chief Liam Sinara.
The NEC voted Tuesday to order all provincial election committees and council election committees to stop confiscating election related materials such as video and audio cassettes, and to return any material that they seized.
The vote comes three days after the NEC ordered all political parties to stop disseminating campaign materials “criticizing persons and political parties.”