Reporters Targeted Over Election Questions

A commune chief has filed an official complaint against two Cambodia Daily reporters who interviewed villagers in Ratanakkiri province as part of the newspaper’s commune election coverage, accusing them of arriving “with bad intentions.”

“They came with bad intentions. They came to research, monitor the election and incited people,” the complaint filed on Monday says.

Douglas Steele, general manager and general counsel of The Cambodia Daily, yesterday said the reporters were just doing their jobs and described the complaint as “a bit absurd.”

“Reporters asking questions about politics during an election campaign—isn’t that part of the job?” he asked.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith further escalated the situation yesterday, posting a copy of one of the reporters’ passports on his Facebook page and warning journalists to be aware of the law.

“Please, all journalists, learn the laws on elections and strictly adhere to code of ethics during the elections to avoid any accusations,” Mr. Kanharith wrote.

The complaint was filed by Romam Yuot, the Sam Rainsy Party commune chief of Pate commune in O’yadaw district, the only commune in the province that elected an opposition commune chief in 2012.

Filed to the district governor, the complaint takes issue with the questions the reporters were asking people in the commune.

“What party did people vote for in 2012? Why in the 2012 election in Ratanakkiri province did the CPP win all, except in Kong Thom village, Pate commune, where the Sam Rainsy Party won? What kind of strategy and campaign made [the party] win the election?” the complaint says villagers were asked.

The two reporters “incited people” by not respecting the National Election Committee’s law “that does not allow discussion of politics during the election campaign,” it says. The complaint makes no mention of any specific law the reporters allegedly broke.

The two reporters who were the subject of his complaint, Zsombor Peter and Aun Pheap, have extensively reported on the area’s rampant illegal logging, including an investigation last year that found military involvement in the trade.

District governor Ma Vichet said the reporters had also overstepped the mark by interviewing the commune chief about politics in his office. They should have discussed “development” instead, he said.

“It is wrong to ask questions related to politics to the commune chief in his commune office,” he said. “Please, ask your reporters to not do that.”

Mr. Kanharith, contacted later, said he was “just reminding all journalists to be cautious.” Asked why he felt the need to post passport details, he said it was to “show [the] case.”

Political analyst Cham Bunthet said it appeared that there were little grounds for the complaint.

“The role of the media is to report, right?” he said. “People need to know the facts…in that commune and that’s the role of the reporters: to report that to the people in that district or nationwide.”

Mr. Kanharith’s decision to post the passport details of the foreign reporter was likely an effort to cow other journalists in the run-up to the election, Mr. Bunthet said.

“I think that’s a form of intimidation, a warning and a threat. It’s happened for a long time already from him and other people so I don’t see that as a surprise,” he said.

Just two weeks ago, Prime Minister Hun Sen called out two reporters, including one from the Daily, during a media briefing at the World Economic Forum on Asean in Phnom Penh, saying journalists who did not report properly on the government would be seen as “servants of the foreigners.”

The complaint comes just days after the Information Ministry warned that media outlets must abide by the NEC’s “Guidelines for Cambodia elections” or face being shut down.

However, the guide clearly states that the duty of the media is to “find and broadcast the news about the opinions and different ideas of all involved people during the election process.”

The Sam Rainsy Party, to which the commune chief, Mr. Yuot, belongs, merged with the Human Rights Party after the commune elections in 2012 to form the CNRP, currently the main opposition party in the country. When the new party selected commune candidates for this year’s elections on June 4, Mr. Yuot was left off the ballot, and said at the time that he was shocked by the decision.

(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)

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