Watchdog Warns of Pre-Poll Media Crackdown

Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog organization, has expressed concern that the Cambodian government will tighten its hold on the country’s al­ready restricted media broadcast outlets prior to July’s national election.

In RWB’s 2008 assessment of Cambodia’s media, dated Feb 8, it states that of the country’s 11 television stations, “not one of them is genuinely independent,” and the only radio station that “readily broadcasts challenging news” is Beehive FM 105.

“Ahead of legislative elections scheduled for July 2008, there are fears that the ruling party will tighten its grip still further on electronic media,” the report said.

Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith dismissed RWB’s report Sunday as “bureaucratic,” and emphasized that there are many existing venues where opposition party leaders already have the op­portunity to express dissenting views.

“In any national assembly or senate debate you saw more opposition faces taken the floor than any MP from other parties,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“It’s sure that the opposition have more time to voice their position…. [They] have all the possibilities to insult the government,” he added, but declined to answer whether the government has plans to change its media regulations prior to elections.

Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair El­ections, which reviews the political con­tent of Cambodian media, said Sunday that while radio is starting to include a diversity of voices, all television stations are still firmly aligned with the ruling CPP.

“We can say that the CPP dominates 80 percent of political coverage,” he said, adding that prior to the 2003 elections the CPP was the only party that received television airtime.

“This is still big concern,” he said.

Beehive station director Mam Sonando said he didn’t think the CPP would further restrict the media before elections because they won’t need to in order to ensure control.

“I do not think the CPP would tighten the media. The ruling parties are stronger because the opposition parties are splitting,” he said.

He said his station, which currently sells airtime between 11 am and 2 pm to the SRP, the Nor­odom Ranariddh Party, Funcinpec and the Human Rights Party at $1,500 a month each, plans to increase its daily block of opposition airtime by an hour, stretching it to 3 pm, come March.

“The people listen to Beehive because it is independent and we have courage to broadcast the truth…. My radio would help the voters to understand deeply,” Mam Sonando said, adding that the government limits his station’s reach by preventing it from getting licenses to broadcast in certain provinces.

Sok Ey San, director of Apsara Radio and Television, which is aligned with the CPP, said Sunday that the positive images of the government his station broadcasts are needed to counteract Beehive.

“They broadcast negative information to dilute the government’s popularity while we broadcast good images to restore the government’s popularity,” he said.

Glen Felgate, general manager of CTN, which the RWB report said was the only network to give airtime to opposition figures, said he was out of the country and had not seen the report, and therefore could not comment on it.

John Willis, resident country director for the International Republican Institute, a US-based democracy promotion organization, said equal access to the airwaves is crucial prior to elections.

“It’s simply not a level playing field,” he said, which “makes it very hard for elections to be fair.”

“Half the country gets most of its news from television,” and at present opposition parties are prevented from getting their own stations, he said.

Independent media trainer Moeun Chhean Nariddh said Sun­day that judging from previous election experience, it’s safe to as­sume the government will tight-

en the reins on stations it already

controls.

“With just one or two voices, we cannot say the elections are free and fair,” he said, adding that he thinks the public turns more to radio for its news because they understand there is more balance in the programming.

 

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