After weeks of conflicting decisions and statements, the National Election Committee voted Monday to ban the broadcast of voter- information roundtables on national TV and radio.
Six of the NEC’s 10 commissioners opposed the broadcasts, two wanted the programs to air unedited, and two others supported airing the programs after editing, one NEC source said.
The roundtables were designed to discuss issues related to Sunday’s commune council elections.
NEC Chairman Chheng Phon did not vote, the source said. The vote came after three full days of deliberations, during which commissioners viewed at least some of the videotaped programs.
Reaction was swift. “We are very disappointed indeed,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy. “We are very disappointed indeed.”
“International observers must take note of this. This affects one of the key elements of a free and fair election. How can the voters make an informed choice without information?”
“I think this was a mistake,” said Peter Koppinger, director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. “They could have negotiated with those who organize such things to ensure they were balanced.”
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann called it “a horribly unfortunate decision. [The NEC] ought to be looking to make the campaign period the best possible democratic opportunity for the candidates to convey their messages to the people.”
Instead, he said, it seems to be creating “unnecessary, in fact inexplicable, obstacles” to the free flow of information.
The decision was controversial even within the NEC. “It really was a blow for the donors,” said one high official. “They will be in an uproar over this.”
“It was not one person’s decision, but all the commissioners,” said NEC media officer Prum Nhean Vichet. He said commissioners were concerned that the programs included critical remarks which might inflame voters.
The NEC had earlier promised to provide all political parties equal amounts of time during the campaign season, splitting about an hour a day among the eight parties contesting Sunday’s elections.
As a result, 15 roundtables had been planned by a variety of NGOs, dealing with topics ranging from how to properly fill out a ballot to issues affecting women.
Prum Nhean Vichet said Monday there will be no other access offered to the parties.
He said the commissioners have decided that this is a local election, and there is no obligation to provide national broadcast time to all parties.
One source within the NEC lamented that so many people had spent so much time planning, organizing and videotaping the roundtables that will not be seen.
“It would have been great to have a national platform for the discussion of commune issues,” the source said. “We should not lose sight of the big picture. The real question is: Will the people at the local level know enough to vote?”
Lao Mong Hay said that, given the confusing decisions emanating from the NEC in recent days, he was not too surprised at the final outcome.
“The attitudes of some at the NEC and some elements of the ruling party are well-known,” he said. “They seem determined to deny any platform to parties other than the CPP.”
With the election only five days away, he said groups committed to democracy must not give up. “All who feel likewise should put their heads together,” he said.