A flap over the “Women Are Precious Gems” program administered by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has prompted the National Election Committee to cancel a series of voter education television broadcasts.
Prum Nhean Vichet, director of information for the NEC, said Thursday he had decided to pull the plug on the programs because most of them violated sections of the election law.
In one case, he alleges, one political party improperly took credit for a government program.
“I think that these ‘spots’ are very important parts of the parties’ campaigns, but most of them are breaking the rules, so we are going to cancel them,” he said.
Election observers were dismayed at the news. “We should have these roundtables,” said Hang Putea of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections. “This is the way to democracy.”
Eric Kessler of the US-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs agreed. “Everyone involved with the election process, including the NEC, has correctly said that Cambodian voters need more information,” he said. “And here you have correct, unbiased information, already produced and paid for and ready to go to the voters—and unfortunately roadblocks are placed in the way of dissemination.”
At issue is a series of “roundtable” discussions that were to have been broadcast nationwide during the two-week campaign period that starts Jan 18.
The discussions, for which taping began last month at TVK, featured representatives of eight parties addressing different issues.
Fifteen roundtables were planned, on topics ranging from how to fill out a ballot to party platforms. At least four had been videotaped, edited, and were ready for broadcast, organizers say.
The roundtables were prepared by the NEC and a variety of NGOs, including Nicfec; Women for Prosperity; the NGO Coordinating Committee; the Center for Social Democracy; and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
The sessions were videotaped in advance so NEC officials could review them before broadcast. It was during this review process that Prum Nhean Vichet said he discovered problems.
He said some parties assigned government officials and parliamentarians to appear on the roundtables—a practice not specifically addressed by election law.
He also took exception to remarks made by Mu Sochua, the Minister of Women’s Affairs, at a Dec 31 taping for a program that was to have been broadcast Jan 18.
Mu Sochua, representing the Funcinpec party during a roundtable on women’s issues, described the achievements of her ministry’s “Women Are Precious Gems” initiative.
The five-year plan aims to raise the social and legal status of Cambodian women through new laws, better education, and social services targeted to vulnerable females, such as sex workers and poorly-educated rural girls.
The slogan “Women Are Precious Gems” rewrites a Cambodian proverb that says: “Men are gold, women are white cloth,” meaning a man’s value is durable while women lose their value if soiled.
“I said that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was led by Funcinpec, and the ministry came out with ‘Women Are Precious Gems,’” she said Thursday. “I also said that if Funcinpec wins, this program will continue.”
The NEC felt Funcinpec was taking credit for what is a government program. “They are not allowed to take personal or political credit for government policies,” said Prum Nhean Vichet. “It would be confusing to the public.”
Mu Sochua said she is “sincerely sorry” to have given that impression. “I respect the Prime Minister and he has always supported the ministry, and supported me,” she said.
A letter of apology to Hun Sen, written Jan 7, noted that she had never intended to imply the program was a Funcinpec creation, and that her party had not instructed her to do so.
Although the roundtable discussion will apparently never be aired, her letter of apology was broadcast this week on national TV and radio.
In addition, reports came in Thursday from across the country of a small plane dropping leaflets reprinting Mu Sochua’s apology and stating that “Women Are Precious Gems” is a government program.
The leaflets were reportedly dropped in Koh Kong, Kampot, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces. They began falling in Takeo province at 3:30 pm, said Pall San, first deputy governor. In Battambang province, “there were thousands of them,” said one official.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)