The appropriate scope of a controversial proposed ban on NGOs “insulting” political parties in election campaigns on Monday continued to divide the CPP and CNRP during talks to amend the nation’s election law, with the negotiating teams deciding to pass the issue on to their party leaders to settle.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who will now discuss the proposed ban with Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the word “insulting” may have to be scrapped in favor of a different word that does not threaten to prevent public criticism.
Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin and senior opposition official Kuoy Bunroeun have been leading the two negotiating teams in amending the law and have been united in including a ban on insults, which they say will ensure NGO neutrality.
Yet Mr. Bunroeun said after talks at the National Assembly on Monday that the ruling party is now pushing for the ban to also apply after elections, during the period when votes are being counted and civil society groups often help monitor proceedings to prevent election fraud.
“Now we have not reached an agreement…because it is fine to write it for the election campaign period but this time it would be stated for polling day, vote counting and the announcement of election results,” he said. “It’s difficult to ban them during this period from [publicizing] what they would find out.”
“For the election campaign, we just ban them from initiating plans to take part in the campaign, and offering materials or money to the political parties,” Mr. Bunroeun said.
Mr. Chhin said that it was unclear how the government would punish civil society leaders who are deemed to have insulted political parties.
“So far we have not thought about the penalty,” Mr. Chhin said. “But, like I have said…both local and international civil society should have neutral and independent positions.”
“Now it is about the matter of polling, counting and election [result] consolidation, and the result announcement—we also want them to be neutral and unbiased then just like during the period of the electoral campaign,” he said.
“We don’t have the intention to stop them from voicing opinions,” Mr. Chhin added. “If they are neutral and speak the truth, then they will not face the penalties.”
However, Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said he cannot understand why the parties are so keen to institute a ban on insults.
“The main concept of an election campaign is to give more freedom to everyone—civil society, voters, politicians—for political discussion and questioning. Why are they trying to narrow expression during campaigns? During the election period, they should encourage people to express themselves more,” Mr. Panha said.
“They should elaborate on this kind of discriminating provision on civil society organizations,” he added. “Why are they targeting civil society organizations? What kind of issues have happened in the past where there has been this insulting?”
Following the July 2013 national election, a group of NGOs calling itself the Electoral Reform Alliance released a comprehensive report showing that the CPP performed markedly better in areas where election irregularities were most widespread.
The Council of Ministers issued a scathing 40-page response, claiming that some of the organizations involved were working with the CNRP to warp public opinion about the election and overthrow the CPP government.
Mr. Rainsy, the CNRP president, said Monday that he believed the controversy over the new provision would be resolved if the parties can find a word for “insulting” that could not be taken to mean “criticism.”
“It is just a matter of wording. We don’t want to use this word ‘insult.’ We will find a more appropriate word. Insulting we cannot encourage, but constructive criticism is beneficial, and we should not prevent criticism,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“In the end, we will find an appropriate word to guarantee freedom of expression of civil society without giving the impression that people can insult other people or provoke others,” he said. “The CNRP will not accept any wording or provision that would silence civil society.”