The National Election Committee’s refusal to telecast two multi-part voter information programs drew condemnation Sunday from an array of diplomats and activists.
“This is bad for democracy. It is bad for the election. It is bad for the political parties, and it is bad for the electorate. The poorer parties will have no forums to present themselves to the electorate. The electorate will have no way to get the information they need. This will affect the freeness and fairness of the election,” Khmer Insititute for Democracy Executive Director Lao Mong Hay said.
The US, which has provided about $100,000 for the voter information projects, also criticized the cancellations. US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann called the decision “inexplicable and unjustified” and said he plans “to raise this with the NEC and to protest it.”
The cancellations will also be a topic of discussion at the semi-annual donor meeting which begins Wednesday, Wiedemann said. Donor nations have pledged more than $16 million to pay for the Feb 3 commune council elections.
Prum Nhean Vichet, director of information for the NEC, last week pulled the plug on two voter information projects that were to have been telecast on state-controlled TV during the two-week campaign period that begins Friday.
One was a series of live candidate debates, to be held in six locations around Cambodia, at which commune council candidates would field questions from a moderator, each other and the voters. The first debate is scheduled for Saturday in Kampot. The debates are intended to teach voters how to directly question candidates about their plans, and to teach candidates how to respond effectively.
The second project was a series of up to 15 roundtable discussions on election issues and procedures, at which parties would get equal time to explain their platforms.
Prum Nhean Vichet said he decided not to air the debates because the only way to be fair to all commune candidates would be to organize debates in all 1,621 communes. He will not air the roundtables, he said, because participants refused to obey NEC rules.
“People should have pity on me,” he said Sunday, contending he has been criticized on all sides in an untenable situation. “I allowed these roundtables to be created, even though the law doesn’t [specifically] address the issue. I was criticized for being too liberal.”
Although the roundtable discussions were a good idea, they just didn’t work out, Prum Nhean Vichet said.
“The NGO Coordinating Committee wanted these. We wanted to give access to all political parties. Some parties were not happy with this,” he said. In retrospect, he said, “we allowed too much equal access to the political parties.”
A group of NGOs has been working for months to organize the roundtables. Some dealt with practical matters, such as how to fill out ballots and what voters must do to ensure that their ballots are not disqualified.
“That is important information, and very few people know about it,” Center for Social Development President Chea Vannath said.
Such programs are also extremely popular with voters, Chea Vannath said.
“A public forum is like a soap opera to the voters. They like to watch them,” she said.
Others dealt with policy issues. The NGO Women for Prosperity organized a forum on women in politics which was taped Dec 31 and scheduled to be shown Jan 18. It was that show, featuring Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua, that prompted Prum Nhean Vichet to cancel all the roundtables.
Mu Sochua, appearing on behalf of Funcinpec, discussed a ministry program to raise the status of Cambodian women and said that it would continue if Funcinpec won the election.
She was improperly giving Funcinpec credit for a government program, Prum Nhean Vichet said. Although the program has never aired, her letter of apology to Prime Minister Hun Sen was broadcast nationwide, and thousands of copies of a government news release on the matter were dropped by plane last week in a number of provinces.
Nanda Pok, director of Women for Prosperity and chairwoman of the NGO Coordinating Committee, said the decision “was wrong. These shows are the only opportunity for the political parties to reach the voters.”
“We have the right to edit and to not broadcast,” Prum Nhean Vichet said.
He did not say why the NEC didn’t just edit the offending matter out of the tape. The NGO workers say at least four more complete programs are taped and ready to go.
Asked how the NEC will now fulfill its promise to the donor countries to provide equal access on broadcast media to all political parties, he said: “We will look into it.”
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said he believed the NEC had made the right decision, noting the election law does not specifically require roundtables or public forums.
Local elections worldwide are usually small, quiet affairs, and there is no need to provide equal access nationwide to all parties in such an election, Sar Kheng said.
“These roundtables might create political confusion, focusing too much attention on what should be small elections,” he said.
Critics say they are worried the NEC may be moving away from democracy, rather than towards it.
“With inadequate information, how can voters make an informed decision?” Lao Mong Hay said. “If this is a trend, I fear the onset of dictatorship in the country. The next step will be control of the printed media.”
The whole point of the projects was to educate the electorate, Wiedemann said.
“Both roundtables and debates are arguably the best way to get this information to the voters,” he said, adding that in a country with a high illiteracy rate, they should be broadcast.
That they are not to be broadcast is a betrayal, the ambassador said
“The government, all along, has agreed there would be equal access to the media for all. I have had those assurances from Hun Sen, Sar Kheng, and the NEC,” Wiedemann said.
There is “absolutely” still time to reverse the decision, Wiedmeann said. The NEC has reversed itself before; for instance, it extended the time allowed for voter registration.
Wiedemann said he hopes the NEC will permit the programs to be broadcast.
“This was a political decision, and it was a bad one,” he said. “It’s not the NEC‘s job to make them. Which raises the question of whether they are getting instructions from the ruling party, which would be a serious problem.”