Text Ban Hindered Work for Election Monitors

The election weekend’s 39-hour text-messaging ban hampered the work of poll monitors across Cambodia, reducing the volume, speed and precision of their reporting, NGO workers said Sunday.

The National Election Com­mit­tee announced Friday that it had ordered mobile phone providers to suspend SMS at midnight until the close of polling stations at 3 pm Sunday.

Officials said the ban was to prevent illicit electioneering at the last minute.

Koul Panha, executive director for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said his organization spent $1,500 training 1,000 of its 11,000 election monitors to send SMS coded reports from across the country directly into a computer database, which could rapidly collate reports of irregularities such as vote-buying, violence and intimidation.

Clustered SMS reports of irregularities would have helped the group quickly decide where to dispatch teams of observers, he said.

Comfrel was instead reduced to slower, more costly telephone calls with a far smaller pool of monitors, Koul Panha said. He estimated the cost of calls during the SMS blackout to come to $2,000.

“We explained [our plan] to the NEC. We explained it to everybody. We never anticipated this,” Koul Panha said, adding that the NEC had not sufficiently considered the ban’s effects.

“They must balance the right to freedom of information, freedom of expression, with their concerns,” he added.

NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha defended the ban and said Sunday his organization had yet to decide on an SMS policy for the future.

“We do not have any plan yet on the banning of SMS in future elections,” he said, adding that observers could report their findings Sunday afternoon.

“They have other ways, like calling to report about the elections. And the price of calls is not expensive,” he said.

NEC had not discussed the ban before ordering it because the decision rested with the organization alone, he said.

“It’s the NEC’s decision. We haven’t discussed it with any or­ganization,” he said. “The ban will not affect the results,” he added.


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